Turning the expression of a conventional song cycle graphic supports suspension of disbelief for some and suppresses it for others able to fantasize richly. Some pieces exist to burst genres—a ballet of the Matthew Passion and an opera of Mendelssohn’s Elijah come instantly to mind. An April outing had mezzo Susan Graham bring heightened intensity to lieder in a Celebrity Series recital [interview here].
Which brings us to Boston Opera Collaborative’s upcoming operatic non-opera: a January 6–8 “pictorialization” of two song cycles, in which 12 groups of 15 auditors will follow paired singers and pianists through domestic parlors of Longy’s Zabriskie House.
BMInt had questions for co-artistic director Patricia-Maria Weinmann.
FLE: Why are you doing this labor-intensive expansion or retelling of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben and Dominick Argento’s From the Diary of Virginia Woolf?
PW: Usually art song is performed in a formal setting, without benefit of sets, props, or natural movement. We have created a way to experience song in a more complete way, beyond the recital hall. The singers fully embody the character in various settings appropriate for each song with staging, props, sets, and lighting. In Mirror: An Immersive Song Cycle Experience, two singers and two pianists present two cycles of eight songs each four times over three dates.
Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben is one of the most beloved pieces in art song repertoire and lends itself very well to staging. Argento used the Schumann as a model for his cycle. Schumann’s piece is an idealized imagining of moments in a woman’s life—based on a set of poems. Argento uses diary entries of Virginia Woolf. The juxtaposition gives particular vibrancy to the evening. The audience can see and hear two works side by side; they complement each other.
The shows start every 30 minutes in Zabriskie House at the Longy School of Music of Bard College and proceed room to room, alternating songs from each cycle.
The songs are staged in drawing rooms and bedrooms, on stairwells and in libraries. The audience is literally within arm’s reach of the singers. As each group of performers and audience members travel throughout the house, the spaces between songs offers dramatic potential as well. It’s a riveting 75-minute physical and musical journey through the lives of two women separated by a century of changing expectations and aspirations.
Help me with the statistics.
We have four teams consisting of two singers (one singer performs the Schumann, the other the Argento). Their music director / pianist moves with them throughout the house. Each singer performs one number per location. For example, team 1 begins at 7pm: Schumann’s No. 1 and Argento’s No. 1 are performed in the Wolfinsohn Room. Then team 1 proceeds upstairs with audience to perform no. 2 of both cycles. Team 1’s audience travels with them throughout the house. Once team 1 is under way for half an hour, team 2 begins the same journey. We have timed it so that teams don’t overlap or run into each other in the house.
So, four pianists and eight singers perform on each of the three nights?
Yes: the music directors / pianists are the bottom row here (Whitaker, Au …).
Jean Anderson Collier
So, eight rooms and eight pianos, 30-minute spacing per team to prevent “leaking.” Chairs in each room, and refreshments, in some of the former domestic parlors? Will there be non-singing characters for each singer to interact with?
There is a maid who has a few lines. Other than that, no other characters.
Will you let audience members pick happier endings?
Not very likely!
“Mirror: An Immersive Song Cycle Experience”
Robert Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben
Dominick Argento’s From the Diary of Virginia Woolf
Zabriskie House at Longy School of Music of Bard College, Cambridge, Mass.
January 6, 2017 at 7 pm, 7:30 pm, 8 pm and 8:30 pm
January 7, 2017 at 7 pm, 7:30 pm, 8 pm and 8:30 pm
January 8, 2017 at 6 pm, 6:30 pm, 7 pm and 7:30 pm
Munchies provided. Ticketing here.
General admission: $35 senior (65+), $30 student, plus $3 processing fee.
The spoken introduction to each tour written by co-directors Patricia-Maria Weinmann and Gregg Schmucker is appended.
As an opera company dedicated to telling stories in fresh ways and in intimate spaces, the idea dramatizing song cycles and staging them in a house appealed to us very much.
So rather than presenting these two works by Schumann and Argento as the first and second halves of a performance on a concert stage, we’ve chosen to perform the works together, one song at a time, and to stage them in different rooms in this lovely mansion, giving each piece a dramatic context. Over the next hour and 20 minutes, you’ll visit eight rooms where you’ll hear one song from each cycle.
These two works are similar in many ways. Robert Schumann’s Frauenliebe und – leben is one of the most well-known and beloved German song cycles. Written in 1840, it’s based on a set of poems that paint a picture of a woman’s life as she meets a man, falls in love, becomes engaged, gets married, gives birth and finally loses her husband. It’s a highly idealized version of a woman’s love and life, and Schumann was likely attracted to the piece because of this. The cycle was written in 1840, the year when Schumann was frustrated in his attempts to marry Clara Wieck. It often feels like these eight songs are the words he wished to place in the mouth of his beloved.
Argento’s piece is based on the diaries of Virginia Woolf, the celebrated modernist English writer who suffered from depression and took her own life in 1941 at age 59. Just as we see moments from a woman’s life in Schumann’s piece, Argento has selected moments from Virginia Woolf’s diaries that span the final 22 years of her life.
Argento purposely modeled his cycle after Schumann’s saying quote “I wanted to write a piece very much like Robert Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben, which he set to eight songs that go through a woman’s life and point of view.” End quote. Like Schumann, Argento’s cycle ends his last song with thematic material from the first song. But Argento goes even farther – if you listen closely, in the final song you’ll hear quotes from each of the earlier seven songs.
The contrasts and similarities in these pieces are fascinating, especially when you consider them as examination of the lives of two women separated by a century of changing expectations for what path a woman’s life might take. Schumann’s character is devoted to her man, to winning him, marrying him and eventually having a child with him, and it’s a beautiful idealized expression of love and home.
In Argento’s piece, Virginia Woolf leads a very different life. Her concern is her art, her writing, leading an examined life, observing everything. In some pieces she seems to gently mock Schumann’s protagonist as the relic of a bygone era; in others, she seems to miss that simpler time
Boston Opera Collaborative offers fresh opera experiences that put our audiences in close contact with the power of the human voice. Our year-round performance calendar features Boston’s brightest young talent in energetic and intimate productions of repertoire ranging from canon favorites to Boston premieres. We bring opera into unexpected places and find new ways to tell familiar stories, inviting the uninitiated to see their first opera and welcoming the lifetime fan to engage with our unique brand of music theater. Boston Opera Collaborative’s roster artists come to us from the nation’s top conservatories, making Boston their home as they pursue the next stage of their careers. BOC provides performance and outreach opportunities, continuing education and professional development resources. Our roster artists also assist in one of our operational departments, from Production to Development, Marketing to Finance. Through this business model, they gain valuable hands-on experience in administrative skills that support their future careers in the arts. Since Boston Opera Collaborative’s founding, in 2005, by Brooke Larimer, Katie Drexel, and Markus Hauck, we have presented nearly 30 fully staged productions as well as concerts, scene programs, and recitals, giving performance opportunities to over 150 young artists in the greater Boston area.