Saturday, April 24, 2010

AMELIA: A Listener's Guide (Part 2 of 7)

Act One Scene One

Even though I wrote at length yesterday about musical motives, you don't need to analyze the motives in Amelia (or in any opera, for that matter) to enjoy its music. As you listen to the first scene, allow the many motives to get planted in the soil of your subconscious, so they can bloom later on, and instead direct your attention to the scene’s four big musical set-pieces:

Young Amelia’s Apostrophe to the Stars (“Oh, stars flung wide across the dome”)
The opera opens with a little girl gazing up at the starry sky. She sings a brief aria whose four-square poem and block chord accompaniment may remind you of the Navy Hymn; the music sings of her love for her father as well as the allure and romance of flight. Listen as her voice soars up to a high C at the words “Unbound by earth and troubles of day.”


Costume design for Young Amelia by Ann Hould-Ward

Dodge’s Lullaby (“Dear Amelia, may you sleep”)
We learn very quickly that the little girl’s father is missing in action in North Vietnam. Yet he is onstage, tucking her into bed, singing her a lullaby--a memory of the last time she saw him, the night before he left for his second tour of duty. Daron Hagen composed this piece, which showcases the beauty of a lyric tenor voice, after studying photos of Gardner McFall’s father--the real-life Dodge.


Photo of Gardner and Dodge McFall, senior courtesy of Gardner McFall

The Dream of the Flier
Young Amelia is a soprano, as is The Flier, and their two soprano voices overlap as Young Amelia falls asleep and dreams herself into the final moments on earth of Amelia Earhart. Hagen chose a high soprano for The Flier because the character is always way up in the clouds. The orchestral writing in this nightmare-scene also features wide open spaces between the rumbling mechanical sound of the engine, way down in the bass, and floating wings way up high. (The moment that always takes my breath away is when The Flier, recognizing the inevitability of her fate, sings the music Young Amelia used for the romance and beauty of flight.)

The Lullaby Doubled
The first scene closes, after Young Amelia wakes from her nightmare, with her mother and father reprising the lullaby from before as a duet. Since we’ve now learned that Dodge is gone, this is the first of the many surreal ensembles in the opera--when music makes the impossible possible.

Amelia’sopening scene does lots of work in less than 25 minutes: it introduces a lot of characters and themes, breaks our hearts, terrifies us, and reassures us. It also shows how this musical drama is going to work: layers of realities piling up on top of each other, rhyming with each other across time or from another dimension. When, in the space of one bar, The Flier (crashing into the Pacific) sings a high C and Young Amelia (waking from her nightmare) and her mother Amanda (distraught with grief over the loss of her husband) each sing a high A, we sense their connection--while reacting, more viscerally, to the threefold sound of those powerful voices.

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