Follow by Email

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Interesting concept - voices as orchestra in Michael Ching's opera

Opera Memphis presents Michael Ching's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" -- interesting concept which I'd love to hear (and see the score). 'way back I commissioned Peter Schickele to write a piano concerto (it's The Twelve Months) with choir instead of orchestra (well . . . it was his idea--we met after a PDQ Bach performance at PLU and I asked, as I sometimes do, "Is there a piece you've always wanted to write, but haven't had the opportunity yet?" The idea and commission followed). I know of a few other such pieces, but not an opera!

Perhaps interesting to do here at UNT . . . 

Some excerpts from the review by Heidi Waleson at the Wall Street Journal follow:

Is it possible to write an opera without an orchestra? Composer Michael Ching's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," given its world premiere here by Opera Memphis and Playhouse on the Square, has a "voicestra," an ensemble of a cappella singers, instead of instruments in the pit. Popular a cappella has branched out in recent years from its old-fashioned roots (think "The Whiffenpoof Song") to all kinds of music, including elaborate arrangements of up-to-the-minute rock and hip-hop numbers, with voices re-creating the instrumental parts.

Mr. Ching's remarkably inventive opera is a celebration of what voices can do and still, with the exception of a few startling vocal percussion effects, sound like voices. The voicestra —between 15 and 20 amplified voices, depending on the performance—supports the singers on the stage, its overlapping lines and syllables weaving around them, amplifying their characters and conflicts, sometimes echoing their words (or even their thoughts), or supplying atmosphere. The voicestra gives the opera an added human dimension, and its invisibility goes with the magical nature of the story.
The text, taken from Shakespeare, has far more prominence here than most opera composers allow, as Mr. Ching's tonal and tuneful vocal lines are written for maximum intelligibility rather than musical display, and some of the words are spoken. (There were no supertitles.) To mix things up even further, the lovers, especially Hermia and Helena, often sing in a style that draws from musical theater, and the play-acting workmen occasionally borrow tunes (Flute/Thisbe's speech in the rehearsal is comically set to a bit of "I Am Sixteen, Going on Seventeen" from "The Sound of Music"). Opera singers take the roles of Oberon and Titania, and double as Theseus and Hippolyta, thus giving the grandest style to the rulers of fairyland and Athens, respectively.

. . .

DeltaCappella, the Memphis male a cappella ensemble that was the inspiration for the opera, formed a key part of the cast. (Mr. Ching, who was general and artistic director of the Memphis Opera until last year, was the group's vocal coach.) Along with RIVA, a female a cappella group, their members made up the voicestra, and some of them also climbed out of the pit to play the parts of the mechanicals. Charles Ponder and Thomas "TeKay" King, both large, African-American men, brought a particularly potent energy to Bottom/Pyramus and Flute/Thisbe. Mr. Ponder's rendition of Pyramus's death scene, set hilariously to "E lucevan le stelle" from "Tosca," was brilliantly over the top, while Mr. King gave Thisbe's lament a bare, touching gravity.

The voicestra itself, conducted by Curtis Tucker, was splendid, creating a variety of sounds and textures—the haunting background of Oberon's "I know a bank"; a sinister repetition of "Chop! Chop!" when Hermia's angry father Egeus (Kent Fleshman) demanded "the law upon [Lysander's] head"; hunting-horn fanfares to awaken the lovers; a forest full of insect noises. It was fascinating to read the biographies of these fine avocational musicians in the program—one is an ear, nose and throat surgeon; another is a special-education teacher. In addition to creating a new kind of opera, Mr. Ching and Opera Memphis deserve recognition for successfully incorporating a wonderful local resource into their work.
Ms. Waleson writes about opera for the Journal.

No comments: