Shared mem­o­ries, shared loss


Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - James M. Keller

Un­Shake­able, a new opera by Joseph Il­lick and An­drea Fel­lows Wal­ters

Ev­ery year, Santa Fe Opera mounts a tour­ing pro­duc­tion that touches down in com­mu­ni­ties through­out New Mex­ico and even be­yond the state’s bor­ders. This year’s opera, ti­tled Un­Shake­able ,is a new work com­mis­sioned from li­bret­tist An­drea Fel­lows Wal­ters, Santa Fe Opera’s di­rec­tor of ed­u­ca­tion and com­mu­nity pro­grams, and com­poser Joseph Il­lick, who is artis­tic di­rec­tor of Per­for­mance Santa Fe as well as music di­rec­tor and prin­ci­pal con­duc­tor of Fort Worth Opera. Con­ceived as a work to mark the 400th an­niver­sary of the death of Wil­liam Shake­speare, which is be­ing ob­served this spring, it brings to­gether themes in which Shake­speare plays in­ter­sect with a New Mex­ico love story. Set in an aban­doned the­ater in New Mex­ico a quar­ter of a cen­tury in the fu­ture, Un­Shake­able re­lates the story of Merid­ian and Wy­att, ac­tors and for­mer lovers who have been stricken in a pan­demic that causes mem­ory loss. Even in their im­paired state, they find that pas­sages from Shake­speare can still serve as a bridge for com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Pasatiempo spoke with An­drea Fel­lows Wal­ters and com­mu­ni­cated by email with Joseph Il­lick to gain in­sight to how this piece came into be­ing.

An­drea Fel­lows Wal­ters: It is an in­ter­est­ing thing to re­flect on the cre­ative process, on how you get from A to Q. When con­tem­plat­ing writ­ing a piece in a year that is the com­mem­o­ra­tion of a death, I thought, Well, we tell sto­ries to com­mem­o­rate. I was orig­i­nally em­barked on a very dif­fer­ent opera, but I ex­pressed to Joe that one rea­son we tell sto­ries is to re­mem­ber. He re­sponded, “Then some­body in this opera has to for­get some­thing.” Once he said that, it moved me to a to­tally dif­fer­ent path.

Joseph Il­lick: Charles McKay [gen­eral di­rec­tor of Santa Fe Opera] com­mis­sioned our opera in April 2015. I wrote the first scene An­drea gave me, the

Tam­ing of the Shrew sec­tion, at the end of July, and the rest in Au­gust. An­drea’s words felt very nat­u­ral and real to me, so I didn’t ask her to change any­thing. Much of the text is taken from Shake­speare: Ham­let, Mac­beth, Romeo and Juliet, The Tem­pest, The Tam­ing of the Shrew, and A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream. Charles heard an early read­ing of the opera, with me singing the two parts, and he liked it enough to ask me to score it for cham­ber en­sem­ble. The group for the per­for­mances in Santa Fe will be clar­inet, French horn, vi­o­lin, vi­ola, cello, and pi­ano. When we take it on tour, it will be with pi­ano only.

Wal­ters: So far as the Shake­spearean texts are con­cerned, Joe and I talked at the be­gin­ning about whether we wanted to use more ob­scure sec­tions from the plays, but we agreed that it would be best to use ex­cerpts that peo­ple have a de­gree of fa­mil­iar­ity with al­ready. I went back and read Romeo and Juliet,

A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream, and The Tem­pest. Other things rose up out of them, things that I thought would serve the larger theme of recog­ni­tion and iden­tity. I com­pare it to block­ing a paint­ing. I’d put the Shake­speare ex­cerpts on the page and then come back to them as I ex­panded the treat­ment of the text. What came out of it was the char­ac­ter of Merid­ian. I dis­cov­ered that Shake­speare is her lan­guage; that’s how she com­mu­ni­cates. Il­lick: There’s a pas­sage in The French Lieu­tenant’s

Woman where John Fowles claims that the char­ac­ters take over at a cer­tain point and are no longer in his con­trol. When I read that 40 years ago, I was du­bi­ous, but now I know ex­actly what he was say­ing. The char­ac­ters take on their own voice, and some­times I feel like I’m just tak­ing dic­ta­tion. There was no pre­ex­ist­ing music in my mind that found its way into

Un­Shake­able. I put the script on the ta­ble to the right of my man­u­script pa­per, and as I read the lines, I would hear the char­ac­ters singing them, and I’d write it down. I would scrib­ble in the har­mony as I went along, with­out a fully fleshed-out ac­com­pa­ni­ment. Once the whole piece was sketched, I went to the pi­ano and pol­ished the ac­com­pa­ni­ment.

Wal­ters: It is an en­tirely orig­i­nal sce­nario, not based on any other pre­ex­ist­ing work, although it may have been in­spired a bit by the novel The Buried Gi­ant by Kazuo Ishig­uro, which in­volves an el­e­ment of shared loss. I say humbly that I wanted the names of the two char­ac­ters to re­flect what Shake­speare might have named them. I like the name Merid­ian. It con­veys the idea of be­ing cen­tered, of a place of ori­gin. And Wy­att — it sings beau­ti­fully, which you want in an opera, and it also evokes the West thanks to Wy­att Earp. I think both of these names could be out of a Shake­speare play.

Il­lick: The singers were cho­sen in ad­vance — not only the voice types, but the Santa Fe Opera ap­pren­tices who were hired to sing the roles. I heard them both and wrote specif­i­cally for their voices. As it turned out, both of the singers we had cho­sen got other jobs dur­ing the tour pe­riod, and two new singers were hired, so I rewrote the parts to suit these singers. Jac­que­lyn Stucker is the so­prano who will sing Merid­ian, and Sa­muel Schultz is the bari­tone who will sing Wy­att. Many com­posers wrote for spe­cific singers, and it is ideal to write a part that blooms ex­actly where the per­former’s voice blooms. In my other life as an opera con­duc­tor, I some­times re­write parts for singers. They some­times feel like that is cheat­ing, at first, but there is re­ally a strong prece­dent for vo­cal parts be­ing tai­lor-made for the per­form­ers.

Wal­ters: Mem­ory. Many of us have had some­one in our lives who has ex­pe­ri­enced a change in the way they re­mem­ber. In fact, we all sense this change in our­selves. It’s a place of fa­mil­iar­ity for me. Lifesongs is a project that started as a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Santa Fe Opera but is now man­aged by the Academy for the Love of Learn­ing. I am in­volved with Lifesongs as an artist, work­ing with peo­ple in hospice. I help them cre­ate a pocket opera, a song rep­re­sen­ta­tive of their lives. I have worked with peo­ple with vary­ing de­grees of in­tact mem­ory. Not every­body re­al­izes how ten­der it is, this whole con­di­tion of mem­ory loss.

Il­lick: The story of the opera is about an epi­demic called era­sure, a vi­ral pan­demic in an imag­i­nary fu­ture that causes peo­ple to lose parts of their mem­ory. Merid­ian and Wy­att were con­nected both ro­man­ti­cally and pro­fes­sion­ally. Af­ter the epi­demic, Merid­ian loses all mem­ory of Wy­att, and she has not re­cov­ered any of that mem­ory when he meets her again at the be­gin­ning of the opera. He quickly re­al­izes, how­ever, that while Merid­ian has no rec­ol­lec­tion of him, she re­mem­bers ev­ery word of Shake­speare per­fectly.

Wal­ters: This is an area I’m keen on build­ing — op­eras for the com­mu­nity, opera for all ages, for

fam­i­lies. It is an in­cen­tive that is gen­er­ally of in­ter­est in the opera world to­day. My col­league Kath­leen Claw­son, the stage di­rec­tor for this opera, has seen the value of break­ing the fourth wall for per­form­ers and au­di­ence. In this opera we have the au­di­ence fill the role of the cho­rus. Brit­ten’s Noye’s Fludde was a model for us in this re­gard. At the be­gin­ning, we in­tro­duce the au­di­ence to the cho­ral piece they will sing dur­ing the opera. The au­di­ence is al­ready pre­pared; they are primed with a de­gree of fa­mil­iar­ity and an­tic­i­pa­tion. When we get closer to the “Wish­ing Star” cho­rus, as we call it, they know the opera can’t move for­ward with­out them. The story will come to a stand­still if the “Wish­ing Stars” don’t come in and sing with Wy­att. Il­lick: But the mem­bers of the au­di­ence don’t know what role they will play in the opera un­til it oc­curs. Be­cause we teach the au­di­ence a melody they will hear sev­eral times in the opera, they will have the plea­sure of recog­ni­tion, which is of­ten ab­sent when hear­ing a new piece. This ties in with the themes of mem­ory and recog­ni­tion. Wal­ters: This opera runs about 40 min­utes, but I haven’t found it a chal­lenge to write short. In fact, I found it free­ing. I think it was eas­ier for me to keep the ac­tion go­ing with just two char­ac­ters, with­out hav­ing to weave in the needs and mo­ti­va­tions of other char­ac­ters. The au­dac­ity, for me, was the amount of Shake­speare that fig­ures into it. You might say that putting Shake­speare’s works to ser­vice in our piece is an act of hubris. But I hope that our set­ting these frag­ments of Shake­speare will bring peo­ple to a new way of think­ing about the text, about the lan­guage. Per­haps it will in­spire them to go back to re­visit Shake­speare’s plays, much as it in­spired me to do ex­actly that.

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