Tuesday, May 4, 2010

AMELIA: A Listener’s Guide (Part 6 of 7)

The heart of Amelia is Act Two Scene Two. Structurally, this scene contains the golden mean: that moment, not quite two-thirds of the way through, where (mathematically speaking) a climax or turning-point feels most natural. Left, the mathematics of the Golden Mean create beautiful natural shapes. Richard Wagner always deploys his shattering musical climaxes at the moment of the Golden Mean, whether you’re talking about a prelude or orchestral interlude or an entire opera.

The climax of Amelia takes place in a hospital, a few days after the pregnant Amelia collapses at her husband’s office. Because the drama of this scene is extremely complicated, the scene is organized musically around three set-pieces:

Theme and Variations
After an expository passage in which we meet several new characters--Amelia’s Doctor and Aunt Helen, plus a real-life Father and Boy who remind us of Daedalus and Icarus--Hagen organizes the first section of the scene as a Theme and Variations. The theme is Aunt Helen’s hymn-like arioso “Oh, stars flung wide across the dome,” a prayer she sings upon learning from the Doctor that the Boy (Amelia’s neighbor in the hospital) is likely to die from the injuries he sustained in his great fall. The first four variations support the comatose Amelia’s conversation with her dead father; but the final variation turns out to be Aunt Helen’s version of the Navy hymn.

When Amelia tells Dodge, “I’ll let you go now,” we begin the Amelia Quintet. The singers are the Father, Aunt Helen, the Boy, Dodge, and The Flier; the voices enter in fugue, because, as Daron Hagen puts it, “There’s nothing more terrifying than a fugue!” There’s something mechanical about the inevitability of the fugue--intensified in this particular fugue by an ostinato, an unsettling repetitive figure which we hear over and over again in the accompaniment:

Musical example by members of the Seattle Symphony

This ostinato cell is the sound of the Boy’s heart monitor beeping away; the pinched high B flat is actually played by a dead-stick Vibraphone, meaning the percussionist hits the bar but never releases his mallet. The machinery in the music sets up an atmosphere of eerieness, while the five voices in their fugue lament the imminent death of the Boy; he repeats the cry, “Father, don’t leave me!” while his Father reassures him and encourages him to “Cast off your fear.” Following the Quintet, the boy’s heart-monitor flatlines (computerized sound effect) and an attempted resuscitation fails. Watch the singers being trained by staff at Harborview Medical Center to perform this scene accurately here.

Amelia is about loss and recuperation. This quintet plays a crucial thematic role, sheltering as it does in music the emotional impact of a tragic death. We meet in this opera four characters who cross the line between life and death: The Flier, Dodge, the unnamed daughter of Trang and Huy, and the Boy; but the music only stops to mourn the loss of the Boy. No one can mourn The Flier or Dodge, because no one knows what happened to either of them; Trang and Huy’s daughter dies in a wartime action sequence of senseless violence, one without time for grief. The Boy’s death comes where it does because we need to mourn those we’ve lost. The creative team who wrote Amelia have each in their own lives had to grieve for those they’ve loved and lost, and when we hear the Quintet, each of us in the audience will be right there, in that scene--because it happens to all of us, sad though it is, it’s what makes us human, mortal.

Letter Aria
But the true Golden Mean of Amelia is the aria that follows the Quintet, the piece known as the “Letter Aria.” Paul sings it; deeply shocked by the death of the boy, he fears that Amelia, too, may die. He is imploring her not to die, a cappella, when he finds under Amelia’s sheets, miraculously, the last letter Dodge wrote from Vietnam--even though Trang burned that letter thirty years earlier. So the aria is Paul reading the loving last words of a husband and father as he bids farewell to the wife and daughter he loves most of all. Right, one of the real-life letters from Dodge McFall, senior, that inspired the Letter Aria (courtesy of Gardner McFall).

Like every moment of Amelia, the Letter Aria operates on many levels: it is Dodge, comforting Amelia; it’s Paul, comforting Amelia; it’s Dodge, comforting Paul; it’s Paul, having his first and last encounter with his father-in-law; it is someone without convictions learning from someone else what is worth dying for--and what is worth living for. Musically, the Letter Aria is a gentle Andante, with pulsing hymn-chords in the orchestra and long lyric phrases for the baritone; it moves from the key associated with Dodge (and his military trumpets), Bb major, to Ameila’s home key, E major; and it climaxes in a full-voiced high G and then ends on a pianissimo high E. Seattle Opera’s beloved late Director of Education, Perry Lorenzo, told me when we first heard it two years ago he thought this brief, powerful aria had the potential to replace Billy Budd’s “Billy in the Darbies” aria as the standard English-language audition aria for baritones.

Having mourned those we’ve lost, and found renewed strength and confidence from magical words of comfort, it’s time now for: the landing of Amelia Earhart! The Letter Aria is followed by a brief scene in which The Flier gets out of her Lockheed Electra, looks around, and assesses that wherever she is, it’s an OK place. Metaphorically, this means that Amelia is ready to give birth. The scene concludes with her emerging from her coma, refusing Caesarean section, and declaring: “I can do this.”

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