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Atmospheric But Not Dreary

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Odyssey Opera, in partnership with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), presents the New England premiere of Dominick Argento’s opera The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe, on Friday, April 5, 2024, ay the Huntington Theater in Poe’s birthplace of Boston. For one-night only, the Grammy Award-winning conductor Gil Rose leads a formidable cast including tenor Peter Tantsits as Poe, the Odyssey Opera chorus, the acclaimed BMOP orchestra in a semi-staged version. A world premiere studio recording will follow on BMOP/sound. Synopsis and history HERE. Tickets HERE  An interview with the conductor follows.

FLE: We’ve talked many times, but I’ve never actually delved into your biography at all. So what guru or mentor formed your interest in looking up unjustly neglected works?

GR: Oh, Wow, it’s a good question. You stumped me right out of the gate.

One person that had a big effect on me was the author Joe Horowitz. The arguments he made in some of his books like “Understanding Toscanini” and “Wagner Nights and other ones. “The Ivory Trade”…  they just resonated with me about something unhealthy about the systems under which our orchestras and opera companies operate. That’s where it all came from.

I think a lot of people assume that regarding my work with BMOP and maybe not so much Odyssey Opera, that I have some passion for advocating for new music, which is true, but that’s not the motivation. Rather I care about creating a healthier relationship between performance and audience and repertoire than we have right now because what we have right now is a dead app. We hear the same works over and over and over and over again, though orchestras are digging their ways out of it a little bit better than opera companies.

A lot of organizations have to worry about sustainability and survival, but you’re lucky. Over the years you haven’t had to raise money to support a large infrastructure you’re your funders have encouraged you to do what you want without having to make the case for box office appeal.

That is true, but the infrastructure decision was a conscious one. The moment you start building fixed cost infrastructures, you need fixed incomes and when you start having fixed incomes, you start making decisions that aren’t based on artistic vision. And that is what is keeping the organization lean and mean was a conscious decision. Funders supported this vision and I haven’t had pressure to do the “greatest hits.”

But, but the point is that you can in part follow your own muse because you’re not having to go after some lowest common denominator,

 Yeah, absolutely.

 And you’re not having to fill theaters. You want people there but it’s not mostly about that, since your legacy is going to be your recordings.

This is true.

Yes, we’ve talked about that before. So let me get a little bit into the mechanics. What polestar do you focus on for your odysseys of discovery? Are you only considering works that you can hear on recordings? Or are you a good enough score reader that you can drop into libraries and dig through works?

The internet has made this whole exercise a bit easier, but at the same time a bit of a rabbit hole. We don’t have to leave any question unanswered anymore. We just ask Siri, ‘who was the vice president in 1887,’ and we know immediately. We don’t even have to get the Encyclopedia Britannica out anymore. When I was a kid, that’s how you found the answers, you went to the library, you got the encyclopedia by chance, but now you instantaneously get an answer. So if I want to do a deep dive on operas that are about poets, I can find it within two minutes. I can find a website that will list several interesting ones for me. The internet has made possible a lot of quick research.

But if it’s totally neglected and hasn’t been recorded and doesn’t appear on YouTube, you’re not as likely to discover it.

Well, that’s not the case with The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe which doesn’t exist on YouTube.

Well, I discovered a couple of excerpts there.

There was a production about nine years ago in Germany that has some YouTube excerpts.

But you’ve known about you’ve known about Argento for years and have done two or three other shows based on his work

Dominick is a composer I greatly admire, and feel has unjustly gone out of fashion…not that it was ever in fashion; he was too good to be in fashion.
When I listen to those excerpts from the Staatsopera Braunschweig and the Minneapolis Opera I reacted with critics’ adjectives: post-romantic. cinematic, exotic, mysterious, rich with episodes… dare I say emotional?

Very emotional

A lot of new music doesn’t do that at least for me…The publisher’s website refers to 12-tone writing within a predominantly tonal palette, but it doesn’t strike me that we’re even going to be aware particularly of tone rows.

Dominick is a very interesting composer in how he uses the dodecaphonic technique in non-rigid ways, intermixed with tonal writing.  You know, it reminds me of Alban Berg in a lot of ways.

The system was never an end in itself. It was a launching point. It won’t really even register.

Now the excerpt that I listened to seem like it was 90 percent orchestral, writing and only 10 percent vocal. But that can’t represent the mix in a 180-minute opera.

There’s so much singing in this opera! It is actually one of the big challenges is pacing everybody through the whole evening. The lead Edgar Allan Poe character never leaves the stage.

It’s a very taxing role, and the fact that we’re performing it and then going straight into recording the next day results in one of my biggest challenges: How do we keep the pace going without burning anybody out?

Again, in  the excerpts, I heard the orchestral writing seemed almost more vocal than the vocal writing in terms of lyrical line.

It’s not like there’s not set numbers. There is a symphonic nature to it.

Is it true that some of the vocal writing sounds sort of more instrumental than vocal?

Yeah, that might be a function of those excerpts, right? But that’s not an inaccurate description, Dominique was certainly a singer’s composer. He wrote all sorts of music, but vocal music is really what he’s known for—both choral and operatic. So the voice is not handled the way some opera composers would handle it. The orchestra and the singers are part of the same fabric for sure.

***

The librettist Christopher Nolte was a gorgeous leading man,  and he was apparently close to Argento for decades. And it, I wonder if, if there was some connection with Menotti and Barber as well.

I never asked  Dominick about that though. Dominick and Nolte were not in the same kind of relationship as Barber and Menotti. Dominick was involved with women, not with men. I don’t recall having talked about Menotti’s or Barber’s music with him, but Dominick brings similar theatrical craftsmanship to the table.

How much the of the libretto is Poe? And how much of it is Nolte?

A lot of it freely resets Poe’s poetry, rather than giving a set reading of a poem.

We’ll have librettos in the lobby called because we’re not doing super titles. The piece, as you’ve noted, is very thick and so often people are singing at the same time different texts. The story is not easy to understand, and since it’s a semi-staged production, it’s not got the clarity from tons of scenery. The story’s very convoluted, but it’s an extravagant one told rather quickly. So I just thought the best chance of really understanding it was to have the libretto which includes detailed stage directions.

***
So, tell us a little bit about the lead singer Peter Cousins.

I worked with Peter 15 years ago when I conducted Cerise Jacobs’s production of Zhou Long’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Madame White Snake . We stayed in touch over the years and I tried to get him in for a couple things here and there, but it never worked out until now.

The opera demands a specific kind of voice. It’s very high and has lots of notes. The tenor in the original production almost melted down a couple days before the opening because it’s so vocally demanding. The very complex writing and tons of material also place tremendous demands on memory. In a bootleg recording from the front row, I could hear the prompter quite a lot… and the tenor almost walked out of the show.

Are you going to cover him?

We’re not talking about that because we don’t want to tempt fate.

No, I don’t mean that kind of covering!  I wonder, since the orchestra’s presumably not going to be in a pit, whether balance might be problematical with the complex scoring.

With the singers out front balance will be ok, but might lead to problems with coordination.

***

How often have you produced something that you thought was unjustly neglected only to discover that the neglect was justified?

Never, and, of course, when you record them, you have to go through the editing process, which means you will listen to it over and over and over and over again. As you work through the editing.   Dominick’s one of the few composers for whom, after I have gone through the entire process of learning, the score performing the piece recording it and editing it, I’m learning new things about the piece, even at the end of the process, and that’s rare.

Dominick’s music is immediately attractive to the audience because it’s listenable and communicative, but at the same time, it’s very tightly constructed, with a lot of relational things that reward multiple hearings.   Dominick plays some subtle and often subliminal tricks that don’t register immediately.

Do you have any idea why the opera hasn’t had long legs?

It’s not short. Basically, the opera tells the story based on a fact about Poe’s death. He boarded a boat to Richmond, then seven days later was found in Baltimore, quite out of his mind. The opera is basically about what happens between this boarding of this boat and his death. It also brings in another real-life character, his literary agent Griswold, who is the villain of the opera.

Dominick sets eight psychotic episodes in a rather extravagant, fantastic world. It’s a daunting piece to take on as a full-blown production. The money that would be required to do it at the highest level is substantial.

When they did it in Chicago and Dallas in the 90s, they cut about a third. We’re not cutting it because, since we’re recording it; we’re beholden to pull it all off by hook or crook.

Miss Havisham’s Fire is neglected but his smaller works like Casanova’s Homecoming and Postcard from Morocco—the one acts—have lives often in colleges and conservatories, because, they’re doable. Poe’s Voyage, by contrast, is a big, big, roiling monster.

Again, that made me think of Menotti. He made all those TV operas that ran 55 minutes and they’re always being done by community colleges and conservatories and so forth.

They’re good because the singers can handle them at that stage and their development, but   Dominick’s bigger operas are for really advanced singing.

***

How many potential productions are spinning in your head right now?  Are lots of candidates competing with each other for your interest?

I have a very extensive bucket list and it doesn’t get smaller. It gets larger. My goal is to give interesting and worthwhile works another life. There’s plenty of those works available. They sort of come on as projects one at a time and there’s already stuff in the works for next year. We’ve been using this ‘voyaging metaphor’ about our journeys and our voyages. There’s lots out there for us and I just hope we can continue to do it and do it well.

We all really admire how your ego works. It’s not about you and the spotlight. It’s about your recorded legacy; we’re all the better for that.

Thank you. That’s a very nice thing to hear.

Dominick Argento: The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe (1975-76)

April 5th at the Huntington Theater

Tickets HERE

Composer:   Dominick Argento (1927-2019)
Librettist: Charles Nolte (1923-2010)
Edgar Allan Poe: Peter Tantsits (tenor)
Griswold.: Tom Meglioranza (baritone)
Virginia Poe: Maggie Finnegan (soprano)
Doctor: Neal Ferreira (tenor)
Mrs. Poe: Kirsten Arnold (soprano)
Mrs. Clemm: Felicia Gavilanes (mezzo-soprano)
Mrs. Allan: Christina English (mezzo-soprano)
Director: Anne Harley
Theatre Director: David Salsbery Fry
Conductor: Gil Rose
Musicians: Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Odyssey Opera chorus

3 Comments »

3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Attended this opera with my Uncle Dominick (Argento) many years ago in Baltimore. It was a wonderful, spooky experience and I am extremely pleased to hear of a new performance of Poe. I look forward to hearing the recording.

    Comment by Nicki Argento Rambeau — March 28, 2024 at 7:15 am

  2. OK. I have long long since bought a ticket & will be trying to use the Smartphone of the folding design.
    CUT 2 THE CHASE: Back in 2014 Arts Emerson had a staged production of RED-EYE TO HAVRE DE GRACE which I saw which was VERY good. The story there was that the last person who ever saw Poe alive and who knew who he was was a conductor on the train between Philadelphia and Baltimore (OK Philadelphia Wilmington & Baltimore RR if you must know!) who saw him at Havre de Grace. There wasn’t to be a bridge over the Susquehanna River there until 1862 so people took a ferry across the river to board another train in 1849. I will be eager to see if this Odyssey production is based on that or have any similarity to it. If RED-EYE gets redone it is worth going to and seeing. Unfortunately THE CHRONICLE OF NINE revealed why it is seldom done; its compositional idiom doesn’t work out; problem is the time and effort spent finding out it didn’t work. Someone had to try it–we turned out to be the victims! Another not-worth-it failure: I saw Sarah Caldwell do THE FISHERMAN & HIS WIFE in 1970; insufferably Dull and repetitive. Seeing it was being done again I quickly scheduled some root-canal work so I could avoid it. FISHERMAN was a good production for five-year olds with a child’s perception and attention span. Anyone older it was pure torture.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — March 30, 2024 at 11:59 pm

  3. Having been fortunate enough to catch the dress rehearsal, I have just one message: Don’t miss The Voyage of Edgar Allen Poe, if you don’t yet have a ticket. Dominic Argento’s score is appropriately eerie, with phenomenally gorgeous instrumentation. The character parts fulfill all one’s memory of Poe’s nightmares.

    Comment by Bettina Norton — April 4, 2024 at 6:06 pm

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