Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Shared Experiences: Toby Smith

Today's reflection on Amelia is by Toby Smith, a senior lecturer in Astronomy at the University of Washington who has been hanging around Seattle Opera in the audience and sometimes as a volunteer since about 1999. The image is of the author in his father's Air Force flight cap, circa 1969.

"Astronomy is far more common in opera than mad scenes are; it is just that the mad scenes get flashier music and better (bloodier) costumes.

Occasionally astronomical themes step to the forefront and get a really great aria. A few of my favorites are Wolfram's aria to the planet Venus ("O du mein holder Abendstern") in Tannhäuser, Rusalka's Song to the Moon ("Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém"), and Cavaradossi's heartwrenching aria on the eve of his execution ("E lucevan le stelle," The stars were shining) from Tosca.

On rare occasions, an astronomer makes an appearance. One noteworthy example is the royal astronomer Astradamors in Ligeti's Grand Macabre, who likes to look at Venus through his telescope--although I am not really sure that he is referring to the planet. By the way, this opera is on the top of my list for the one I will underwrite for Seattle Opera when I hit the lottery."

In Amelia, astronomy takes center stage from the very beginning:
Oh, stars, flung wide across the dome,
Heaven's a gown I'd love to wear.
Bathed in your light, I'm never alone.
With Ursa Major, Pollux and Castor,
Hercules stands on the dragon's head,
according to what my father says.
Stars, look after my father who flies.
His name is Dodge. Please be his safety net and guide.
When I am grown, let me fly, too.
Swift as a wind-blown leaf or jay,
clear as the soaring Pleiades.

Left, Ashley Emerson as Young Amelia demonstrates her knowledge of astronomy (Rozarii Lynch, photo)

"Like Amelia, I spent large chunks of my youth lying on the ground looking at the stars. Ursa Major, Gemini (Castor and Pollux), Hercules, and Draco (the dragon) are some of my oldest friends. Stars have served many others as companions and guides. The fixed frame of reference of the stars has been the basis of navigation for centuries, a "safety net and guide" to the whole history of exploration. Lest you think navigation by stars is positively pre-19th century, the Apollo lunar mission and a whole host of interplanetary probes used stellar navigation. Even Vietnam-era pilots used the stars for navigation: the earliest star charts of my youth were the ones from my father's missions from Delaware to Vietnam.

Amelia uses astronomical references throughout the opera in a navigational context. I am reminded of Peter Grimes’ aria "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades..." by Benjamin Britten; Amelia also refers to Ursa Major (The Great Bear) and the Pleiades. It is interesting that the astronomical references in both these operas are to the winter sky in the northern hemisphere--not the best time for fishing or lying under the stars.

I did not recognize any constellations in the starry backdrop that opens this production, but the pattern of stars satisfied my astronomical prejudices. Too often, starry backdrops in the theater go with a uniform starry field. The real night sky is far from uniform; that is why we recognize constellations.

On a side note, I appreciated how the plane in the first act moved: great pitch, roll, and yaw, although I was strongly reminded of poor Fafner the dragon in Seattle Opera’s recent Siegfried, who had very similar movements on the same part of the stage and met a similar fate to the Flier's plane!

While flight is the obvious narrative link between Icarus, the Flier, Dodge, and Amelia, the stars link them as well. All of these characters would have seen the same stars. The stars that Icarus saw are the same ones that Amelia sang to in her aria. Art may be long, and life short ("Ars longa, vita brevis") but the stars we see will outlive us--and our art."


The final image we see in Amelia is the twinkling stars, while (l to r) doctors reminiscent of Amelia's parents cuddle in a waiting room, the Flier gazes toward the horizon, the Father heads toward the door marked 'Exit', and Amelia and Paul coo over the newest member of their family.

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