Seattle Opera premieres Amelia

Nathan Gunn as Paul. Photo by Rozarii Lynch photo.

By R.M. Campbell

During the past 25 years or so of Speight Jenkins’ tenure as general director, Seattle Opera has traveled in many music waters. However, none involved commissioning a work. That absence was rectified this weekend at McCaw Hall with an often compelling and poignant “Amelia.” The climate for new operas has changed considerably since Jenkins took over the reins: then new opera was rarity, now it is common, despite the huge costs (“Amelia” cost $3.6 million) and huge risks of artistic or box office failure.

Jenkins did not go about the task of commissioning an opera with little thought. He began the process in 2002 with a search for a composer. The following year, Daron Aric Hagen was approached as the composer. Hagen suggested the subject of flight. The next year Hagen introduced Jenkins to the poetry of Gardner McFall, and, in 2005, Hagen and McFall began to toss ideas around at Yaddo, the artists’ colony. A story on flight emerges, and Stephen Wadsworth joins the team to create a story based in part on McFall’s own history in which her father, a flight commander in the U.S. Navy, was lost in a training mission, in 1966. A workshop of the complete opera was given in Seattle two years ago.

The narrative is not linear. It goes back and forth in time, sometimes at the same moment on the stage. While Amelia’s father dies in the first scene, he remain a presence in the opera almost to the end, through dream sequences of the title character, finally providing a resolution for his daughter’s long-standing fears and sense of loss. Indeed, there are few scenes which occur in a straightforward manner; frequently various episodes are played out simultaneously. The first scene, for instance, Dodge, also a naval flight commander, is still saying goodnight to his daughter Amelia just before his deployment to Vietnam when two Navy officials arrive, in very black car, to tell his wife that he is missing in action. This duality does not always work but when it does it is highly effective. Past and present live in parallel universes such as Daedalus and Icarus about to take flight, and their modern counterparts, or the real Amelia Earhart, in a replica of her own plane, who casts a spell over the entire proceedings, as The Flier. ”Amelia” could not be more topical. When it begins, in 1965, the Vietnam war is raging. April 30th was the 30-year anniversary of the North Vietnamese taking control of the entire country. Last fall a film, “Amelia,” on Amelia Earhart was released.

The opera is a 30-year arc from Dodge’s death to Amelia giving birth to her first child, as she finally comes to terms with her father’s death. In the middle, closing the first act, is the most powerful scene in the opera when Amelia and Amanda, her mother, go to Vietnam on the invitation of a Vietnamese couple who were witness to Dodge’s capture by the North Vietnamese. The scene is notable not only for its dramatic pull but that it is done in English and Vietnamese.

These various elements are remarkably not confusing although they occasionally seem bloated. The opera itself is quite concise: a neat two acts divided into three scenes each for a total of two hours all together. There is much to be admired in Hagen’s score. It is tonal, occasionally percussive, mildly dissonant, just enough to put him in the world of modern music. It deserves repeated attention and grows on one. He is not afraid of lyricism or a singable tune, such as the Letter Aria in Act II. Curiously some of his best writing comes in the interludes that introduce both acts and separate the six scenes. This is potent music. Perhaps he should consider making a suite of them for the concert stage. His music and McFall’s libretto work together seamlessly. The time given to the creation of this work is telling, time to consider and reconsider and rehearse. McFall is a poet; in 1996, a collection of her poems, “The Pilot’s Daughter,” was published. Her talent in verse is evident throughout the piece. She has own flights of imagination regarding the magic of flying, the heavens and human relationships. Hagen’s music gets our emotional attention through abstract means while McFall anchors it through words. She is a lyricist who knows how to keep matters simple, or at least to give that appearance. Whatever the dramatic failings of the opera belong to Wadsworth, who shaped the work as drama.

Thomas Lynch, a set designer well-known at Seattle Opera, did the decor for piece. It is not complicated or elaborate, on the surface: a not-so-large box, sometimes divided into two, sometimes not, serves most of the opera. It allows for intimacy. Upstage to it is the large, black car which brings bad news to Amelia and her mother. On top is room for the amazing replica of Amelia Earhart’s airplane that crashe in 1937. Then there is the grandness and beauty of the sky overhead. The whole effect is quite startling. Working in conjunction with Lynch is Duane Schuler’s lighting design. Just as there are many nuances to Lynch’s design, so are there to Schuler. It never calls attention to itself, but its riches are striking. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes carry the flavor and convention of ordinary contemporary life.

The cast is large with a number of singers taking double roles. There isn’t a weak singer among them. Kate Lindsey sings Amelia with force and energy and feeling. She can be a trying character — sometimes too much so — but Lindsey gives her an empathetic edge. Even her mad scene, in her husband’s office, works. There is little work to make Dodge sympathetic. The character radiates sympathy. William Burden, with his sweet tenor, gives him the heroic image he deserves. Two baritones sing the role of Paul, Amelia’s long-suffering husband: Nathan Gunn, on Saturday night, and David McFerrin, Sunday afternoon. They were both appealing in the role with their attractive, tempered voices and stage manner. Jennifer Zetlan offered much as The Flier, or Amelia Earhart, and Luretta Bybee, Amanda. The role of Helen, Amelia’s aunt, was sung by Jane Eaglen, It was nice to see on stage again. The role suited her, and she delivered the goods. Others in the cast were the excellent Jordan Bisch, as Daedlaus/Young Boy’s Father, and Nicholas Coppolo, Icarus/Young Boy.

Gerard Schwarz conducted with attention to detail, ensemble — not always an easy matter — and tone color. The performance was memorable.

Performances run through May 22.

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5 thoughts on “Seattle Opera premieres Amelia

  1. I mostly agree with Campbell’s review, but feel that Wadsworth deserves more credit for an inventive structure and visualization for this complex story. That it could benefit from an editing after this round of performances does not diminish my admiration for his and McFall’s achievement. They challenge the audience, but do not lose it.

    Campbell’s is the second review I have read that refers to the music as “tonal.” I cannot say that I found a tonal center, a key, in the music, any more than I can in Alban Berg’s. Perhaps a second hearing might help me notice a tonality.

  2. Thank you for your comment! I haven’t heard the opera yet, but I will very soon. Wadsworth is a fantastic story teller. For me, a solid narrative arc is critical for my own enjoyment of an opera. I can’t speak for RM, but I suspect his use of “tonal” refers to consonant harmonies. Tonalitt is used interchangeably with consonance these days.

  3. Dear Mr. Hagan,

    Thanks for your comment. Hagen’s harmonic language can be compared to that of Richard Strauss; AMELIA is basically a tonal piece, meaning there’s always a local key center, although the harmonic vocabulary, enhanced by post-Wagnerian chromaticism, is rich enough that the center is not always obvious. Like Richard Strauss, Hagen associates characters with keys; Dodge (military man that he is) tends to be in Bb, a good key for trumpets (although Hagen occasionally juxtaposes Bb major with B natural minor, alluding to Britten’s BILLY BUDD when dealing with Dodge’s tragedy), whereas Amelia’s key is E major. The climactic “Letter Aria” which completes Amelia’s mourning for Dodge, moves from Bb to E; past connects to future across an augmented fourth, or tritone.

    Go to http://seattleopera.blogspot.com/search/label/Amelia%20Listener%20Guide for the 7-part Listener’s Guide to AMELIA I posted on the Seattle Opera Blog.

    Jonathan Dean
    Seattle Opera Director of Public Programs and Media

  4. We saw the opera last night. Melodically it sounded not unlike an odd mix of Barber, Broadway, and Britten. (“B” alliteration unintentional.) I heard more of Peter Grimes than Billy Budd – “What harbor shelters peace” came to mind during the last two scenes of Act II. Berg was nowhere in sight, for better or worse.
    Dramatically, I think Berg’s sense of symmetry might have served the opera well. If it had stuck to the narrative, with or without the Daedalus/Icarus counterpoint, it would have been much more cohesive. Specifically, the character of “The Flier” was unnecessary and took valuable stage time away from character development. It’s difficult to make a story like this work, but the characters here really felt like stock characters. Overall the performances were very strong and with such excellent stage design, sets, and direction from the pit, they were nearly able to transcend this limitation. I see what Hagen was getting at, but Amelia’s father was adequately inspirational that the Flier ended up seeming like color commentary. The Daedalus/Icarus story would have better underscored the “risk” aspect of the story if it had been more fleshed out, particularly with the dying boy in the second half.
    Overall it was an enjoyable evening at the theater, and the opera was an impressive achievement. Overall, however, I was left with a sense that the composer and librettist were trying too hard to make a Statement. If they had just told a story, the results would have been an even great achievement.

  5. Hi Matt, I was there too, and I think it was a mighty fine achievement. The music struck me the most. Hagen through composed the piece so well that there were times I wanted to just hear the score. The interludes between scenes were excellent at establishing mood, heightening drama, etc.

    Act II, Scene II was a bit long — unbalanced — relative to the rest of the opera, BUT it had the best vocal parts. Dodge and Amelia, Aunt Helen. It was gratifying to see Jane back in action.

    I am going to be writing more about the opera tonight and tomorrow. It is an exciting time in America for opera. With Amelia and SO’s grant funding, there is a real chance that this opera will break through the old one and done life so many new operas, new pieces in general experience these days.

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