The stars aligned this past weekend — for me at least. I was slated to return to Boston after many years away to present a concert in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, and the music of Ireland, but fortuitously, this was also the weekend of the Nightingale Vocal Ensemble’s production of “Adrift,” a self-proclaimed “first-of-its-kind choral opera,” at the Boston Center for the Arts’s black-box theater. Having just finished our own dress rehearsal, my duo partner and I rushed from Charlestown to the South End for Nightingale’s dress. Upon arriving at the intimate, minimalist space, with chairs in rows on three of four sides, I expected an immersive experience. It’s great to rip classical music from the grandiosity of the symphony hall or the proscenium stage, thus making the ethereal almost tangible.
Director and project leader Angela Yam explained the concept of this show as a fully in-house designed and produced event with all the music composed by four of the individuals (including her) who sang in the 16-voice ensemble (Asano, Kartik Ayysola, Cara Bender, Hannah Carlson, Sarah Coffman, Nicholas Fahrenkrug, Nicholas Ford, Kristin Hagan, Nathan Halbur, Rose Hegele, Barbara Allen Hill, Daniel Esteban Lugo, Benjamin Kapp Perry, Rebekah Schweitzer, Juan Suarez, Connor Vigeant.) With one week to rehearse together, this was truly the definition of collaborative art.
Joshua Glassman, ensemble tenor, sometimes-project-leader, and board-member of Nightingale, described the enterprise as one of the most exciting vocal ensembles in the Boston area for one specific reason: Most of its concerts comprise composers from within its vocal ranks. Since not all of its 40 singers appear in every production, different sonic textures and ensemble colors can be discovered in each Nightingale event. Music Director, Benjamin Kapp Perry takes ultimate charge for the programming and the allocation of vocal forces for each individual concert, but if this one is any indication, he has a great ear for interesting and cohesive vocal color, and how to build an ideal choral, and non-choral, vocal ensemble that is perfect for Nightingale’s foray into “choral-opera.”
Emily Dickinson scholar and Professor Emerita of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College, Ivy Schweitzer lectured all-too-briefly about Emily Dickinson, contextualizing her foundational place in American poetry and literature. She spoke of and against the almost mythical fascination we tend to have with her perceived sexuality and gender fluidity, even mentioning that she signed letters to her nephews as “Uncle Emily.” But among Schweitzer’s countless interesting assertions—her discussion of Dickinson’s use of “dashes” in her poetry—was not only novel at the time, but something for which she would be known and eventually censored; posthumously her dashes changed into commas.
“We have an epitome of her aesthetic and her radical innovation. For what dashes do is to connect, often linking elements that are quite disparate. They refuse neat endings and finality. They open the poems to an endless play of meaning,” Schweitzer asserted; this made the perfect explanation and segue into the unfolding evening.
In enveloping in darkness, vocal sounds of waves, birds, something like operatic beatboxing, morphed into a pitched drone and through ebb and flow, created harmonic clusters that were simultaneously consonant and dissonant, and consistently beautiful. Punctuated by occasional birdcall, the entire ensemble dressed in black, ambled into the theatre as “A little boat adrift.” Angelica Grau cleverly bathed the ensemble in dim illumination, as voices weaved in and out of each other, fully embracing the aleatory nature of the boat that “no one [will] guide unto the nearest town.” Yam’s own composition of this vocal overture felt remarkably poignant and set the stage beautifully for the coming works.
Music Director, Benjamin Kapp Perry’s setting of “On this wondrous sea” followed, isolating a sextet, with three men forming one boat, and three women forming another, each repeating the second phrase of the poem “Ho Pilot, Ho!” Anchors being cast from each of the respective gender segregated ships, eventually the two ships reconciling “ashore at last” with all six coming together in a circle, with extended arms reminiscent of a captain’s wheel from above. If you squinted, you could see a somewhat linear narrative through this movement, with the men and women’s ships meeting and reconciling. As soon as the reunion began, however, it finished, and the men sailed away to port.
Who could blame the men for heading to port, however, with Nicholas Ford’s composition of “Wild Nights-Wild Nights!” about to begin? The movement began with an Andrews sisters nightclub jazz feel; with intensely seductive humming a mezzo lured all the men to sit enraptured by the sensuality of both her physicality and the imbued “futile” ability to escape the impossibly tight harmonies and the sensual draw of the four sirens. This constituted one of the most successful movements of the evening.
The men of the ensemble not willing to be outshone, presented their own jazzy sextet in Nathan Halbur’s “You said that I “was Great” — one Day.” They strutted about, wooing audience members with their tight barbershop harmonies, and ultimately, and quite charmingly, breaking the fourth wall and serenading their queen Schweitzer.
The scenic shifting continued with without pause as four individuals wandered around a “modern art exhibit” while others contorted in tortured and static poses. Nicholas Ford’s “Split the lark— and you’ll find the music” worked less successfully than his previous hit with “Wild Nights!” Distracting staging unfortunately overshadowed the somewhat interesting vocal texture.
A mezzo-soprano, as “the sea (who) said come” roused the ensemble from its contortions with her repetitive and again alluring invitation. John Haukoos’s composition was beautifully set as the conversation with the sea and the brook. The Brook, who wanted to grow, stood in direct confrontation with the sea. The tenorial “brook” stood protected by the sunlight from the aggressions of the others of the ensemble who adventured to approach him, but resplendent and protective light, both in the music, and the staging rebuffed him.
Benjamin Kapp Perry’s “Tis customary as we part” began with an extended tenor solo leading to an almost representational drawing room minuet, harking back to Haydn or even earlier, using similar musical gestures and theatrical ones alike, to evoke the atmosphere which would have been found in palace entertainments. Concentric circles in opposing rotation could represent this movement.
Up to now, the ensemble had experienced and explored a full range of style, vacillating among poignancy, comedy, romance, and nostalgia, so one might have expected that the next movement would continue such explorations. Dear reader, I was not ready for Nathan Halbur’s “Twas my one glory.” It emerged from what had preceded it as one of my favorite choral moments ever.
A pinspotted soloist stood with members of the black-clad ensemble milling about aimlessly in the shadows. The sound of their steps seemed distracting until I incorporated the percussive nature of the steps into the music. Whether the composer intentioned this or I imagined the plan, kudos to both composer and director. The soloist continued with the shortest and yet most powerful poem of the night “Twas my one Glory—Let it be remembered — I was owned of thee,” until successive individuals joined in a beautiful trio in the spotlight. In dynamic stillness they passionately declared “let it be remembered.” Seemingly improvisatory, the men offered their own issuances of “let it be remembered,” finalizing in the return to the initial staging of the boat configuration, on the most important phrase of the night “my one glory.”
A seamless transition ensued to Angela Yam’s “She died—This was the way she died,” seeming like a continuation of Halbur’s “Twas my one Glory.” The initial soloist returned to the unified light, now with only one other, facing each other over the drone of the ensemble, reminiscent of the death dirge, as the upsetting disappearance of her partner back into the ensemble nodded to the Dickinson desire to be open about her identity in a disapproving time.
Weaving between painful dissonances and stark unisons, the original soloist, faded back into the shadows as well, reclaiming space in what felt like Taizé chant, giving us space to reflect on nostalgia, loss, unrealized potential, and the searing realization that our reality does not signify equality for everyone — and that Dickinson was a victim of that struggle.
That perfectly powerful and affecting moment would have made a perfect ending for a remarkable night, but unfortunately such stillness, unspeakable beauty, and poignancy were violently ruptured by a soprano beatboxing, and even more strangely, playing the air drums. This piece did not work. John Haukoos’ “A poor-torn heart — a tattered heart” while rhythmically interesting, did not have the type of emotional clarity or musical sophistication to synthesize or close the evening. I might have experienced “A poor-torn heart” differently in another place and time, but after the finality of the previous two movements, it never stood a chance.
A note to the leadership of Nightingale: In future iterations of the piece — which I fully believe it deserves — consider reordering of the movements, to allow audiences to absorb your sonic world. Make us laugh, make us think, and then at the end make us cry with that poignancy. Place Houkoos’s piece earlier in the evening, lest if feel anticlimactic again.
Angela Yam’s directorial debut deserves commendation, but she has some work to do to avoid some pitfalls of staging management. While some of the show felt organically motivated and interesting to watch, quite a lot of it seemed derivative. In too many moments she floated “adrift” and just didn’t quite know how she wanted to tell her story.
The intense expression and moving moments in “Adrift” leave me with tremendous optimism for Nightingale’s development as it seeks to expand opera’s boundaries.