Opera Notes: six characters in search of a composer | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Opera Notes: six characters in search of a composer 

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"If I can't sing 'em, I don't write 'em," says Hugo Weisgall, composer and former singer, in answer to the charge that most modern operas are unsingable. "That doesn't mean my operas are easy--they're not. The problem with my operas is the intensity, but that's a problem you have with Aida, and Tosca, and with Tristan und Isolde, too."

Certainly nobody would accuse Weisgall of writing easy music. Nor would anyone accuse Luigi Pirandello of writing sitcom material. Combine the two, in Weisgall's setting of Six Characters in Search of an Author, and the result is an evening as challenging--and as rewarding--for the audience as for the performers.

Weisgall has been in town to advise the conductor, director, and cast for the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists production of Six Characters in Search of an Author. The 77-year-old Weisgall, who came to this country at the age of seven and says that he alone of his generation of composers was entirely educated here, is short and pear-shaped, with thinning gray hair, thick glasses, and a gallant, youthful manner. This is only the third production--and only the second professional production--his 1959 opus has received. The premiere, given by New York City Opera, was marred by the chorus's inability to learn their difficult parts; cuts were made, and the singers were allowed to carry their scores onstage. Weisgall doesn't anticipate any problems this time.

"It's not as difficult to do today as it was 30 years ago, because singers today have better musical training. That doesn't mean it isn't difficult--it is! It's also difficult to do because it's an ensemble opera, more than practically any I can think of, except Falstaff, or perhaps Lulu. The characters just constantly throw lines at one another. The play is very complex, dealing with the problem of illusion versus reality. The added element of music just geometrically complicates matters, from the play within the play to the opera within the opera."

Weisgall, who was the first musician to be elected president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in half a century, and his librettist, Denis Johnston, moved the action from a regional theater in the 1920s to a provincial opera house in the 1950s, and changed the characters accordingly. Instead of doing a detested play by Pirandello, the fictional company is rehearsing The Temptation of Saint Anthony, a "novelty" by one Weisgall that the singers loathe. The Leading Lady becomes the empty-headed, self- centered Coloratura (a role originated by Beverly Sills), complete with a little dog; the Leading Man becomes the dull-witted Tenore Buffo. The Director sings a hymn to "the union." Opera house denizens have been added, for a total of 34 recognizable characters, including a bitchy, sardonic Accompanist, a snide Prompter, and a chorus of Eight Deadly Sins--the usual seven rounded out by a sin so deadly his name cannot be printed (a tenor, of course). Weisgall and Johnston also added an array of operatic references, which are filled out in this production by visual jokes at the expense of assorted opera directors and singers of the past and present. So Pirandello's script has definitely been modified, but the six characters looking for an author to write down their stories remain, and the question remains: What is reality?

Although Weisgall's music can be excruciatingly difficult and nonintuitive for the singer (I know, I'm singing in the chorus for this production), Weisgall steadfastly denies that it's really that hard on the listener. "Six Characters sounds much more consonant to me than the music I'm writing today. It's full of tunes people can hum if they listen--if, indeed, people can still hum.

"My music is modern, whatever modernism means. I write chromatic music, I write very linear music. I have not jumped onto the bandwagon and written neo-romantic music, but I think my music is very romantic anyway! I'm associated with Stravinsky, Bartok, Janacek. It's very convenient to class me with Alban Berg and those, but that's something I don't hear, frankly.

"I just can't write in C major and call that my music."

The drama is as important to Weisgall as the music. "I'm interested in theatrical values--I used to be an actor. A lousy actor, I might say. Once I did the title role in Strindberg's The Father, and I didn't even get mentioned in the review. I did better as a singer. I keep the theatrical values in mind always, but I also pay attention to musical things. Opera is a theatrical form in which music articulates the drama.

"I always work with a librettist, but I'm not at all loath to change his words--although I usually ask first. I wish I could be my own librettist, but the advantage of not being that is that I have somebody to fight with. I like the additional personality, and the additional ideas."

Weisgall is pleased with this production and with the singers, who include the outstanding baritone Robert Orth in the role of the Father; British soprano Elizabeth Byrne, making her American debut as the Stepdaughter; tenor Kevin Anderson (recently heard as Fenton in Chicago Opera Theater's production of The Merry Wives of Windsor) as the Director; and a cast of dozens drawn primarily from the singers of the Lyric Center. The director is Matthew Lata, and Lee Schaenen of the Opera Center will conduct.

Six Characters will be presented in the Civic Theatre, at Washington and Wacker. "It's a small house, so hopefully the audience will get some of the words, and [the cast] won't have to kill themselves in order to sing it. I prefer a place where theatrical values can be seen and felt, and where there's direct contact between the audience and the stage. I don't want to see an opera four blocks away."

Six Characters in Search of an Author is the antithesis of the stand- there-and-sing school of opera: moments of high drama and real beauty reward the audience's attention. Is Weisgall writing operas for intellectuals? "I suppose I'm an elitist," he says. "I deplore the ignorance you find these days--singers who don't know the significance of the Dies Irae. But I believe in absolute standards. I've worked hard enough; I know what the hell I'm doing."

Six Characters in Search of an Author will be presented at the Civic Theatre, 20 N. Wacker, June 14 and 16 at 7:30 PM; tickets are $15 for balcony seats and $29 for the main floor. If you can't make it, National Public Radio will tape the performance and plans to broadcast it next September. For more information call 332- 2244.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.

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