On Friday, October 28, Boston University’s College of Fine Arts concluded its fifteenth annual Fall Fringe Festival with a stimulating program called “Art Song Meets Theater” at the BU Theater’s Studio 210 (a “black box”). Renowned composer Jake Heggie took part in the preparation and performance of this program of his songs and was the collaborative pianist for the whole evening. As in previous Fringe Festivals, this one explored the idea of taking art song “out of recital format at the crook of the piano and [giving it] respectful physical life by simple staging.” However, in this case the student singers had the uncommon and exciting opportunity to work with a living composer over a week-long residence.
CFA’s year-long programming theme for 2011-12 is violence; fortunately, Heggie’s very sizable song output allows for a variety of perspectives on this theme. In his remarks the composer noted, for instance, that while we still regrettably hear of instances of overt violence every day, there also exists the subtler psychic violence that can occur in human relationships, even those within a family.
The first group of songs set texts by Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, best known as the author of Dead Man Walking and as perhaps the nation’s most prominent activist to abolish the death penalty. Its opening gave me my one moment of apprehension about the advisability of staging songs: the mezzo soprano Lauren Lyles began in a rocking chair with her back to a third of the audience, including myself, which made comprehending the text problematic at times. The texts of the first two songs, “Advent” and “Darkness,” concern the short days preceding the winter solstice when darkness is ascendant, and the staging had the singer moving from chair to bed. Yet Sister Helen makes the point that darkness isn’t necessarily negative; night is also a time of reflection, new ideas, dreams, and rejuvenation. Like the author, Heggie doesn’t always make the conventional choice. The song “Darkness” is more energetic, jazzy at times. The final song, “Music,” opens and closes with unaccompanied vocalises, and its soothing harmonies reassure that music can comfort even those on death row.
In Heggie’s “Yellow Roses in a Vase” (from the song cycle A Question of Light, with text by Gene Scheer), the singer is sometimes a third-person narrator, sometimes first-person sharing memories, stricken with grief and survivor’s guilt: he is one of fourteen survivors from a company of 200 soldiers. Baritone Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek conveyed an affecting vulnerability while maintaining clear diction and full tone. “Stars” (A. E. Housman) depicts the falling of stars like raindrops into the ocean which nonetheless remains salty. Tenor Brendan Daly sang with stellar purity, and Heggie painted vividly with cascading thirds on the keyboard. In a complete about-face, the same performers gave an intensely dramatic rendering of “Incantation Bowl” (Gene Scheer), enhanced by Nathan Troup’s twitchy, obsessive staging. (An incantation bowl was once thought to be a means of trapping a demon haunting a house and removing it from the premises.
In two songs from the cycle “Facing Forward, Looking Back,” soprano Sonja Krenek and mezzo soprano Amanda Tarver portrayed a mother and daughter whose past relationship (the mother is deceased) was rocky. In the first song, “Mother in the Mirror” (Armistead Maupin), mom’s ghost drives her daughter batty with the guilt-tripping, for which some mothers have a genius. Sharon Daniels’s very physical staging and the two singers’ striking dramatic and musical talents resulted in a darkly comedic tour de force. Then, in another complete about-face, mom turns gentle, forgiving in “Facing Forward” (the moving text by a 19-year-old Jake Heggie). Heggie’s music too became flowing and lovely as the loving mother gives her child advice to confront the future. There were likely very few dry eyes after the performance of this pair of songs.
The next three songs were taken from the cycle “For a Look or a Touch” (Gene Scheer) and dealt with the painful plight of gay people in Germany before and after World War II. Making use of a narrator, Jim Petosa, director of BU’s School of Theater, and a fine cellist, Robert Mayes, the songs spanned quite an emotional spectrum: the giddy party scene of Berlin between the wars, the grim torture and killing in concentration camps of homosexuals in wartime, and their fear-ridden isolation even afterwards (homosexuality remained a criminal offense in Germany until 1970). Heggie wrote himself an extremely showy, cabaret-influenced piano part in the first song, “Golden Years,” and went to town while baritone Jonathan Cole convincingly portrayed a flirtatious party-boy. In “The Story of Joe” the horrific details of the torture and killing of a gay man are shared by his surviving friend; the music and Troup’s staging combined for a chilling performance. In “Silence,” the narrator’s character, Gad, looks back decades later on his continuing isolation after the war: he couldn’t come out to anybody and wonders would he have done so if he could. Cole plays the ghost of Gad’s lover who caresses him, but it remains a doleful scene with the muted cello playing soft laments and ending on a bare fifth without piano. Petosa’s narrations shunned histrionics but resonated deeply.
The program ended with the complete cycle Pieces of 9/11, premiered on the tenth anniversary of that awful day. After a tensely chromatic solo piano Prelude, the first song, “Lauren,” concerns the passenger on United Flight 93 who said farewell to family members via cell phone and then passed the phone around to others who wanted to do likewise. Sopranos Shannon Miller and Meredeth Kelly and bass-baritone Adrian Smith affectingly depicted Lauren’s family members who recall her traits and her farewell call. In “Lessons” a schoolteacher wearing a head-scarf speaks of parents arriving at the school at midday on 9/11 to take their young children home and one father, an imposing man, speaking threateningly to her. Soprano Celeste Fraser gave a sympathetic portrayal of a Muslim who is “also a grieving American.” Perhaps the dramatic peak of the cycle is “That Moment On,” returned as a search/recover worker at Manhattan’s Ground Zero whose work emotionally affects him in unexpected ways. Finding a piece of a picture, various personal effects of World Trade Center office workers, even a fragment of bone makes him feel an expanded sense of kinship with those lost. “We belonged to each other from that moment on.” Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek and Heggie began modestly and built to a devastating climax. Gentler but hardly less moving was the next song, “Beyond.” An angelic figure advises victims’ loved ones to “walk beyond anger and sorrow” or they will let the terrorists win. Soprano Katrina Galka had just the right purity of voice and, blue jeans aside, looked the part. The final song, “An Open Book,” unites themes of the previous two, describing the process of going through a 9/11 victim’s belongings and the difficulty of letting go. Heggie’s piano part extensively quotes the prelude of J. S. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, possibly as a symbol of enduring beauty and consolation. The song, however, ends quietly a cappella on a musical question mark, perhaps suggesting that the healing process is even now not over for some.
Following the performance was a question-and-answer session with singers, stage directors, and the composer. It was interesting to delve further into the genesis of these songs, but generally speaking they spoke for themselves through the efforts of all these talented artists.
Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach and currently sings in the choir of Trinity Church.