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.