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Bodies and Souls To Inhabit Sanders

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Benjamin T. Rossen’s The Unknowable: An Operatic Ballet in Two Acts follows a young woman’s journey towards sincere curiosity in the face of a demoralizing reality, exploring themes of empathy, frustration, compassion, and inquisitiveness. Interweaving dancers and singers, the narrative is centered on the powerful musical experiences of ‘Les nuits d’été’ by Berlioz and ‘Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen’ by Mahler, carefully chosen for their rich soundworlds and allegorical relevance to the characters’ personal journeys. The Lowell House Opera production runs on February 10th and 11th in Sanders Theater at Harvard University. Tickets HERE.

“We believe that The Unknowable offers a relatable and relevant experience for a 21st-century audience, addressing universal themes of challenging decisions and the internal struggle to attain unequivocal answers.” Our Q and A with the composer follows.

FLE: Please paint a picture about what to expect about the “interweaving of dancers and singers.” Will the singers be relatively static while the dancers upstage them? Do the dancers sing or speak? Edna, a main character, is a speaking and singing dancer?

BR: The dancers do not speak or sing in the show. That being said, the singers and dancers are often in “conversation,” engaging with each other in the living room locale. It is only when these song cycles begin that the dancers perform balletic choreography downstage, while the other characters continue with their conversations in the living room upstage. 

The dancer performing Edna does not speakHowever, in the latter half of Act II, another character, Edith Brookenberg, becomes one with Edna through a magical transformation. Edith and Edna are two bodies, one soul. Hence, from that point forward, Edith will speak as Edna, and the two actors move in synchronicity.

Will the movement of the dancers represent the characters’ thoughts or are they distinct advancers of their own agendas?

The dancers represent the characters’ thoughts and only perform to the song cycles by Berlioz and Mahler. The original music accompanies the scenes in reality, whereas the song cycles transport these characters – and the audience – to places of either deep introspection or vibrant fantasy. 

On the Sanders stage, without any opera house trappings or equipment, how will scenes be evoked and the contrasts between the characters’ reality and fantasies be expressed?

To envoke fantasy, lighting design and the emergence of the Spirits dancers are the main drivers.

Songs cycles and ballets within the opera…will that confuse us?

The ballet and song cycles go hand in hand. The opera and performance of other vocalists are starkly dichotomized with the ballet. Going back and forth is emblematic of our protagonist’s volatile emotionality, and so the audience will never be confused regarding where to focus their attention.

 

Will the orchestra be playing the excerpts from Berlioz and Mahler or will those be represented through “surround sound?”

Surround sound is solely demonstrated by the characters fidgeting with prop speakers onstage. There is no actual audio amplification. The instrumental ensemble will perform everything, which is in fact a piano and string quartet, not orchestra.

How does Rossen’s music relate to the earlier composers’

These song cycles could not be more different in style and form to Rossen’s music. Again, this immense contrast was intentional to divide the “demoralizing reality” from fantasy or deep introspection.

Please describe the musical and choreographer’s styles or languages

Rossen’s music is driven by motifs and gestures that are associated with various characters. These motifs build sound worlds that are far from the language of Berlioz and Mahler. Rossen incorporates various genres – from minimalism to salsa – in order to amplify these motifs. Spoken conversation has no macro-form, and so the music tries to develop the conversation through sound world rather than formal structure.

The choreography can be characterized as contemporary ballet. I would be happy to put you in touch with Emily Parker, our choreographer, who can speak more to the choreography’s style.

The story seems quite relatable to students and anyone who has ever pondered her place in the universe…but will the drama be intense enough to rise to the expectations of an opera plot? 

The Unknowable is not an opera. It is an operatic ballet, which means operatic elements contribute to the story and drama ultimately driven by cathartic choreography. Actors in opera tend to express themselves through music. In operatic ballet, the actors not only express, but also listen, react, and move to the music. I hope that audiences enjoy a completely new approach to vocal performance that is unlike the operas they know and love.

 How many singers, dancers, and players will be involved?

Nine dancers, seven singers, and five musicians are involved.

Scenery? Projections props?

The set and props are geared to present a living room of the 21st century. There will also be a brief scene in a café at the end of the show. 

And the origin story?

“A few days following my graduation from Harvard College, I received a Zoom call from Professor David Laibson, one of the Faculty Deans of Lowell House. From that moment on, I would serve as the Executive Director of Lowell House Opera. However, my initial idea for The Unknowable originated a bit earlier than May 2023. 

In March 2023, I completed my senior thesis entitled ‘A Critical Industry Study of the Music Industry, 1960s: Securitizing Aesthetic Preferences.’ Presented to the Harvard Music Department, this thesis sought to unveil social and economic forces within the music industry that invisibly altered consumers’ music genre preferences. More broadly, I examined aesthetic values through this model. I concluded my writing with an appeal to the reader: ‘[truth] only manifests productively through a constant renewal and revitalization, through unprejudiced yet critical conversation.’ Our inner truths should be definitively our own, not of some modern seneschal. Nevertheless, if we recognize the forces that can malleate our inner selves, we only strengthen the value systems that fortify our ultimate truths. This recognition comes from an ‘unprejudiced yet critical conversation.’

Fascinatingly, the conversation need not be spoken. I realized that one of the greatest sources of intellectual and personal discoveries in my life came from a complete surrender to the creative process, or a deep exploration into how every gear turns in the well-oiled machine. The pursuit of curiosity is a fundamental one for me, and has evidently taken many forms. Yes, it may come from direct conversation or lecture. However, simply witnessing an act come into fruition is often enough. For Edna, the protagonist of The Unknowable, this is certainly the case.

Ultimately, I synergized what I had learned through my senior thesis with my undergraduate directorial experiences – with the Harvard College Opera and Harvard Ballet Company – to create this story. The themes of my thesis and the forms I encountered in my musical direction lent themselves beautifully to this interweaving tapestry I call ‘operatic ballet.’

Libretto and Music by Benjamin T. Rossen ’23, with additional music by Hector Berlioz and Gustav Mahler
Directed by Haley Stark ‘25
Choreographed by Emily Parker
Music Directed by Benjamin T. Rossen

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