Wednesday, May 5, 2010

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

Act Two Scene Three concludes this song and story, which has featured so much death, with a birth. Originally, the creative team thought about ways of representing the birth onstage, visually; but they chose instead to let music lead the way. Amelia’s labor, and the birth itself, are represented musically by an extended orchestral interlude which erupts into an a cappella nonet when the baby’s life begins.

Daron Hagen wrote four orchestral interludes for scene changes in Amelia, following the model of Benjamin Britten, whose orchestral interludes include the four glorious “Sea Interludes” from Peter Grimes. This final interlude, which tells the story of the baby’s birth, was the most challenging one to write: Daron Hagen told me he ended up writing it three times. His first draft was written before the birth of his son; he rewrote it after his son was born and he had first-hand experience, if not of Amelia’s version of the story, at least of Paul’s. He then wrote it again, after dozens of women who had had children heard and gave feedback on it at a workshop in May 2008. Hagen learned, for instance, that there comes a moment in every woman’s labor when she has to give up, has to say “I can’t do this.” That psychological turning-point, giving up and relaxing, is necessary in order to release a hormone which then completes dilation. You hear that little story very clearly in the orchestra, when piano repetitions of the heart-monitor motive yield to timpani tapping out the SOS motive and strings surging upwards in quick little “lift off” scales.

The baby emerges when a texture of rumbling sixteenth notes, scales rushing upwards, and soaring wings gives way to nine singers on a glorious triple forte E major chord. The voices are bass (the Father), two baritones (the Doctor and Paul), tenor (Dodge), two mezzos (Amanda and Amelia), and three sopranos (Young Amelia, Aunt Helen, and The Flier). Their nonet, as complicated in its way as the fiendishly difficult ensembles in Verdi’s Falstaff, concludes the opera. Hagen, who says that he did in fact hear a jubilant ecstasy of voices breaking free from orchestral gravity when his son was born, admits that his musical device here “is the obvious way to do it; the trick is, can we do it well?” As of this writing, the singers and Maestro Gerard Schwarz are still figuring out how to do justice to what Hagen has written, with its jazzily syncopated rhythms, close harmony between vocal neighbors, and unforgettable tempo marking “Unreeling like a montage of kisses!”

Join us at Seattle Opera on May 8, and in the weeks that follow, to find out what it sounds like for yourself.


  1. I've just viewed all 7 entries. You do a spectacular job of explaining, educating and enticing, Jonathan! I can't wait to see the show!

    Kelly Jo M.

  2. They certainly "did it well" at Thursday’s dress as the nonet was, for me, trumped only by the quintet in Act II, Scene 1. Burden's high notes toward the end of the ensemble were particularly memorable.

    In regard to Hagen's modeling of his scene change music on the Sea Interludes of Peter Grimes, I recall my introduction to Britten many years ago while attending a rather sparse stage production of Moby Dick. The minimalist scene changes - which were done openly as there was no curtain in the performance space - were accompanied by this stunning recorded cello music. I was so taken with the music, that I asked one of the stage crew after the show what it was: turned out to be Britten's Cello Suites (in turn based upon the Cello Suites of Bach). I went out the next day and got Rostropovich's famous recording. Peter Grimes came next, and soon I was off to Aldeburgh. Strange and happy coincidence then that Heggie's Moby Dick premiered within eight days of Hagen's Amelia.

    The orchestral music in Hagen's opera is superb and certainly took me on a journey beyond the spectacle on the stage (which is remarkable in its own right!). In a way, this reminded me of Shaw's caustic opprobrium: "I must admit that my favorite way of enjoying a performance of The Ring is to sit at the back of the box, comfortable on two chairs, feet up, and listen without looking. The truth is, a man whose imagination cannot serve him better than the most costly devices of the imitative scenepainter, should not go to the theatre, and as a matter of fact does not." Hagen has given us music which by itself spurs the imagination, and the best of which transports us beyond the confines of the set, the walls of the opera house, and our own carefully erected psychological barriers - an idea perfectly visualized at opera's end when the walls of the hospital float magically away. There is, at this point after all, nothing between us and the story, just as there is nothing between mother and child, just as there nothing – any longer - between a daughter and her dad.