Shared memories, shared loss
UNSHAKEABLE A NEWLY COMMISSIONED OPERA
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.