Monday, May 3, 2010

AMELIA: A Listener’s Guide (Part 5 of 7)

Act Two Scene One of Amelia takes place in the office of Amelia’s husband, Paul, who is an aeronautical engineer. Although the opera isn’t specifically set in Seattle, Speight Jenkins has commented that he thought Amelia might speak powerfully to residents of Jet City, with its large Vietnamese community and deep connection with Boeing. When Daron Hagen originally pitched Jenkins on the opera, it was about flight, using the image of flight as a metaphor for the human condition. Everything that goes up must come down: liftoff is like birth, landing (or crashing) like death; living itself can be like trying to maintain level flight while the wind is pushing you up and gravity is simultaneously pulling you down. Hagen wanted his opera to work like an ourobourous, the old mythological image of the serpent consuming its own tail: a balance between liftoff and touchdown, male and female, birth and death. Icarus crashes to earth as Amelia’s daughter is born, Dodge and The Flier both go missing and both are found, the end of one thing is forever the beginning of something else.

An abstract way of thinking, to be sure, and if it takes a while to see the pattern, well, that’s maturity. That’s our protagonist’s growth in Act Two, and in this first scene she really hasn’t got it sorted out. This nine-months pregnant woman bursts into her husband’s office, breaks up a meeting, freaks out, and collapses into a coma. Amelia can’t stand not knowing; not knowing what happened to her father, not knowing what happened to Amelia Earhart, not knowing what her husband does for a living. She can’t take the risk involved in letting go of earth and soaring skywards; and she’s not ready to be a mother, since she can’t get out of her own head and see things from other people’s points of view. Her music in this scene is agglutinative: she steals music belonging to all the other characters and uses it herself. Structurally, the scene is a duet which Amelia turns into an aria, which then becomes a mad scene. Kate Lindsey, for one, is excited by the opportunity: “Mezzo sopranos NEVER get to play mad scenes! This is great!”

The scene pivots from duet into aria at the moment where Amelia quotes Melville: “All wars are boyish and are fought by boys.” Hagen and McFall are well aware of the many recent American opera librettos that were constructed by patching together quotations from a variety of different sources; they even mock themselves for doing it, when Paul sings (immediately following Amelia’s Melville quote) “Who said that, who?” In addition to this quote, the libretto quotes Edna St. Vincent Millay, “O world, I cannot hold thee close enough. / Thy winds, thy wide grey skies” and Robert Louis Stevenson, “Up in the air I go flying again, / Up in the air and down;” it takes text from Dodge McFall, Sr.’s real-life letters, and from the final transmission of the real-life Amelia Earhart; and of course, there’s the Navy Hymn.

But even more of the quotations in the libretto happen because the poetry works motivically; the characters of Amelia are constantly quoting each other. Amelia’s aria, in Act Two Scene Two, pivots into mad scene when she quotes something her father told her in Act One Scene One (and which Daedalus repeated to Icarus in Act One Scene Two): “Imagine a feather pushed up by the wind, climbing through sea-mist and clouds.” Dodge was ready to sail off into the unknown blue in search of adventure: “Fear is worth feeling to know that sky.” But Amelia cannot follow him: she fails to complete the quote, and instead the orchestra tumbles down a four-octave chromatic scale, in sixteenth-note tritone chords marked triple-forte and marcatissimo: crash! Amelia is left alone in the clouds, with no airplane to support her, and sings her ensuing mad scene a cappella.

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