Tuesday, April 27, 2010

AMELIA: A Listener’s Guide (Part 3 of 7)

Scene Two of Amelia takes place three decades after Scene One, in the ninth month of grown-up Amelia’s pregnancy. The scenes are linked by orchestral interludes, like scenes in Benjamin Britten’s great operas, and this first interlude, a sweepingly romantic piece based principally on Dodge’s soaring melodies about the allure of flight, tells the story of Amelia growing up.

One of the things that happened as she grew up: her voice changed. Young Amelia is a soprano, but adult Amelia is a mezzo. Says composer Daron Hagen of his choice to write the part for a mezzo: “The words of this opera are very important to me, Gardner has written beautiful words, and I want the audience to understand them coming from the singer’s mouth, even before they read the titles. That means Amelia has to be a mezzo. When a soprano goes up to where her money notes are, above the staff, it’s impossible for the audience to understand the words.” The decision to make Amelia a mezzo paved the road to other decisions: Amelia’s husband, Paul, is a baritone, because if he were a tenor his range would overlap with hers; while such an overlap might be OK in a Rossini comedy, it wouldn't work in a story about a mature married couple. And since Paul is a baritone, that means the other leading man, Dodge, is a tenor. What’s more, the minute Daron Hagen first heard the voice of Kate Lindsey, whom Speight Jenkins had engaged to create the role of Amelia, Hagen knew he wanted to use English horn, viola, and bassoon in the orchestra to resonate with the rich colors of Kate’s voice.

This second scene takes place in Amelia and Paul’s bedroom. But it opens with two characters who you might not expect to find in an American home in 1996: Daedalus and Icarus (left, as painted by Frederick Leighton). As happened with the shifting times and realities of the first scene, the music of this scene binds together the two disparate realities so that a pair of duets can become a quartet: Daedalus and Icarus are making wings out of feathers and wax, in order to escape the labyrinth, while Amelia and Paul’s discussion of her dream (of course she’s been dreaming about Daedalus and Icarus) evolves into flirtatious marital bickering. Hagen’s use of musical motives makes it clear that Icarus is just as much a projection of Amelia’s feelings about herself and her father as is The Flier. Icarus tends to use a motive that resembles fluttering wings:

Musical illustration by members of the Seattle Symphony

While The Flier uses this sound of rumbling engine and soaring airplane wings:

Amelia herself uses both these motives, as well as the SOS rhythm and the Navy hymn. Everything we hear in the opera is the musical landscape of her soul.

The bedroom scene features the four characters mentioned above (Icarus is a high tenor and Daedalus a bass), but it’s really Amelia’s scene. She sings a beautiful arioso to Paul about her dreams, and then (when he has left for work) an aria exploring those dreams further, “Why think of the blue canary I had at six?” The relentless descending scales of this aria contradict the surging motion of the many rising scales we hear elsewhere in the opera: Amelia, when we meet her in this scene, thinks more about how planes land (or crash) than how they lift off. Before she can be a mother, she must learn to rise up and gaze at the stars again.

Costume design for Paul by Ann Hould-Ward

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