Mercury Re-imagines Die Schöne Müllerin

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Photo Credit Henry Dombey

In any new orchestration of a work, the arrangement has to reveal in its reimagining a reward, an uncovered gem that gleams when it’s the pluck of a harp, not the breath of a flute, floating across the hall. On Saturday night, Mercury premiered a new orchestration of Franz Schubert’s beloved song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin (originally scored for solo voice and piano) as a small opera, and, though tenor Nicholas Phan delivered a winsome performance, the prize of its reconfiguration never quite surfaced.

Mercury’s artistic director and conductor Antoine Plante arranged the song cycle for tenor and Mercury’s chamber ensemble, which performs on period instruments and produces an unadjusted intonation and distinct timbre true to a centuries-past history. Playing period instruments is an art form unto itself, but it is a very specific form. In any arrangement of Die Schöne Müllerin, it’s hard to surpass the crisp purity of the original piano, which rings and glistens across steady eighth- and sixteenth-note patterns to turn the millstream into a character all its own. The organic tone of period instruments, while exquisite in other settings, just isn’t suited to the task.

Visually, there wasn’t much more of a story to tell, although over the course of 20 songs, Die Schöne Müllerin unravels a rich and universally relatable tale of unrequited love, jealousy, and heartbreak—something well-suited for opera. Staged and directed by Denis Plante, this story was dramatically embodied in a simple, contemporary outdoor setting: an REI camping tent stage left and a backdrop of laundry lines weighed down by sheets. Phan wore hiking books, a plain t-shirt and pants. As the songs cycled, the lighting shifted to match. During “Die liebe Farbe,” a bright Saint Patrick’s Day green lent an overdetermined hue to the repeating line, “My love is so fond of green…green, everything green, all around.”

Plante’s staging also features an actor, Asia Kreitz, in the silent role of the miller’s daughter. After short bout of fishing, Kreitz walked elegantly but aimlessly around and behind Phan. For a story about falling in and out of love, it was peculiar that the two figures on either side of the equation had no relationship until the last few songs, when Phan and Kreitz sat next to each other and made eye contact.

Singing with express passion and dynamics that flowed through meaty fortes and ebbed to exquisitely soft levels, Phan was the winning piece of this performance—and he would have been in any arrangement. In Houston alone, he has proven to be a master of both chamber music and love songs ranging from John Dowland’s Elizabethan era odes to Reynaldo Hahn’s Parisian salon ardors. He’s also no stranger to dramatic re-imaginings, such as a musical adaptation of Marcel Proust’s seven-volume reverie In Search of Lost Time (which also sports actors alongside soloists in what are, at times, odd narrative configurations). He savored every lyric and phrase that makes Die Schöne Müllerin such an audience favorite with sincerity and lavish technique. But as I listened, I never stopped wishing he were just standing by a piano.

Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2


For opera novices and experts alike, John Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2 can be a disorienting, chaotic experience. In Europeras 1 & 2, chance procedures determine how the fundamental parts of opera—music, lighting, costumes, set design, synopses, and action—will unfold independently. One line of my notes from the LA Phil’s New Music Group performance last night, directed by Yuval Sharon, reads: “cowboy, astronaut, log cabin, marble columns, mom jeans, welding mask, Marriage of Figaro?”

In a venue change from the LA Phil’s usual Walt Disney Hall, the extraordinary performance transpired at Sony Picture Studios in Culver City. After waiting on benches in the parking garage, security ushered audience members in groups through metal detectors and through the alleys of other sound stages to Stage 23.fullsizeoutput_7ff

A plush red curtain rose to reveal a dancer under a green light on a stage mapped by an I Ching hexagram of 64 neatly numbered squares. His shoes were on the corner of square 8, and after a series of quiet movements, he retrieved them.

After that, it’s difficult to say what happened. This production boasts 19 impressive soloists ranging from sopranos to basses who sing excerpts from 50 different operas. Four small orchestral ensembles traverse parts of 63 operas separately from the soloists. There are six dancers and several stage hands who variously move props around primaries, such as a vintage vibrating exercise belt that malfunctioned fantastically for a brief moment when it caught on its gears. But the feeling that the performance can’t be summarized properly speaks to the success of this production, which is also how it calls an audience to task: the Europeras 1 & 2 are not about what happens as we know it in any conventional storytelling sense.

As a literary scholar interested in the way that music affects narrative perceptions of temporality in the twentieth-century novel, I have studied the score of Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2—a sweeping array of possible narratives—with dumbfounded curiosity. An insert in last night’s program listed two synopses, one for each half of the program. But even these appear as plot crumbs of operatic essentialism. The second synopses, for example, reads: “On a public bench, he falls in love; however, her father, an evil magician, died, giving birth to him. He is in fact his son, her delight.” For those who grew up listening to opera, the barrage of familiar arias will feel like a bizarre pub quiz where your team is straining to identify phrases in the midst of so many other things. Walking out, the New Yorker’s music critic Alex Ross asked me if I’d caught whether the chef on skis had been singing one of Benjamin Britten’s operas. (I hadn’t.)

More than once, I was reminded of Robert Ashley’s statement that it is silly to think that opera—any opera—can have a plot. But now I’m beginning to think that is only true because Europeras 1 & 2 accesses a deeply unfamiliar kind of storytelling, foreign to narrative theory in literary circles but also to the everyday human experience of piecing together sequences to make sense of the world. The woman sitting next to me walked out at minute 81 of the first Europera whispering, “I’m so sorry, I just can’t take it anymore.” But others laughed out loud and, at its close, gave the performance a warm standing ovation. It is a deeply serious composition, but to be serious does not mean foregoing joy.

It is, perhaps, a rabbit hole venture to look for the story in it. Though a curtain rose and fell during the performance, the stage is open to the eye, a transparent assembly of props, lights, and ropes. Two digital clocks flanked the opposing walls, counting off events pre-determined through chance operations. I spotted a piñata standing on a prop table stage left and waited impatiently for its appearance (it finally made its debut in minute 33 of the Europera 2 to a fragmented “Flight of the Valkyries” accompaniment). There was glitter, netting, knitting, rubber anvils, a casket, a karate kid, Genghis Khan, and a white toilet. I would look up from my notebook, and suddenly the scene had changed to a sand castle, a roman soldier serenading a cauliflower, a starlet cradling a severed head, a soprano singing on a yoga mat in downward dog. The Europeras 1 & 2, as with everything Cage wrote, is something altogether undiscovered—and a supremely beautiful expression of what it is to be human.


The Flying Dutchman at HGO

In the first concert back at the Wortham after a season spent recovering from Hurricane Harvey in the George R. Brown Convention Center, Houston Grand Opera proves yet again that its power lies in the women it casts. Read my review at Houstonia Magazine.

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Photo by Lynn Lane

Sarah Rothenberg’s 25 Years

Sarah Rothenberg remembers where she was when she took up the post as Da Camera’s Artistic Director in 1994: “As much as I loved Bard, it had become very clear that the model we had established would not change…I was interested in experimenting with ways of reaching audiences and also with really kind of exploding what the concert format could be.” Read my interview with her at Houstonia Magazine.

Anna Smaill’s Chimes


While the opera season has not quite arrived, some great musically-minded books have come across my desk lately to pass the time.

As a narrative device, music allows for a flexibility in space and time, opening holes in the sequence of events where characters can experience delusions about when and where they are (such as Forster’s Helen Schlegel, who sees goblins walking end to end over the universe while listening to Beethoven’s Fifth). This is very different from, say, Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto, which uses music as its subject matter but not to drive its narrative beyond that—basically, it’s a story that happens to be about an opera singer, not a story driven structurally by elements of opera or sound. Rarely, a story will have both music as its central plot and its guiding narrative device.

In Anna Smaill’s The Chimes, which I happily finished this Labor Day, music dominates a post-apocalyptic world as a powerful weapon that controls memory (mostly by erasing it), but music also acts as a device that loosens the rules about what a story can do and still make sense to a reader. Melody, counterpoint, harmony, and disharmony work as a mode of communication, suppression, liberation, and revolution. Characters carry flutes as they would machine guns; a character is sentenced to die at the dominant layer (as opposed to the tonic) of a music-making device; they describe movement as “lento,” “presto” and “subito”; when someone hums a tune, it is the same as tracing a map or recalling a memory. “I get myself lost and tuneless for a while before finding at last a way out, a tiny rivulet of melody that pulls me through,” the protagonist says (170).

But unlike most novels that deal in sound, music is strangely self-aware here as a narrative device. Because music centrally controls memory in the story, it draws from the same narrative flexibility that allows Helen Schlegel to enter a realm of goblins and gods while simultaneously attending a matinee in a concert hall. As another character muses: “Why does Chimes deaden us, our memories? Infrasound, the vibrations in the air. But something else as well. When you don’t grasp something or remember something…your mind gets to welcome that deadening. That’s what I believe anyway. Half of our memoryloss [sic] is by choice” (171).

It’s a novel that acknowledges what music allows temporally in a narrative by design and then plays on that effect by making it part of the plot, a kind of double-sided performance that is more curious and unsettling the more I think about it.