Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Poetry of Opera

Carol Levin, a Seattle-area poet, has been appearing on the Seattle Opera stage, as a volunteer, for most of her adult life. Her new book of poetry, Confident Music Would Fly Us To Paradise, draws inspiration from her many years of experience in opera, and juxtaposes the fantasy life of the stage with sounds and silences of ordinary life. Levin is an artist on multiple fronts: writer, editor, teacher, dancer, actor, dramaturg, and teaches The Breathing Lab, based on the principles of the Alexander Technique. She graciously agreed to let us print one of her poems on our blog, and answered our questions about her remarkable new book.

Lights Out, Curtain Closed, It Begins
Das Rheingold

Although he’s dead deliberately
he manipulates this extra long darkness

to ensure gossip will subside
with a shuffle of coughs, a settling-in.

Under its weight you’re seized
by the magnetic field of Wagner’s silence

forcing you to leave everything
in the lighted world behind.

He makes you forsake harsh car honks
and potholes, he frees you

from gridlock’s green, rapid yellow
and unresponsive red, puts to rest

anxiety flashes, to-do lists,
forgets and failures. You wave to

years flashing on, rush to conclude
all goodbyes. He impels surrender

sets you adrift
on an inhale of the baton.

Drenched in darkness separated
from gravity palpated by Wagner’s

double-bass’ insistent opening E note
lengthening like a lifeline, aerating

into an octave, he offers no inkling
of the world about to be revealed

in music’s mingling colors, until bass-
viols and the audience

are out of breath and the whole earth cracks
as strings strafe flexing the pitch like a rolling red tide.

Confident Music Would Fly Us To Paradise is available now at Seattle Opera’s gift shop and from Amazon.

Carol Levin

Carol, your new book of poetry is inspired by your involvement with Seattle Opera. Have you always been interested in opera?
Even though all through my growing-up years opera music one way or another had been a presence in my house, I myself felt no connection with it. I loved other classical music forms. But in about 1978 my friends—who in my opinion were “opera fanatics”—said, “It is time you learned about opera.” They sat my husband and me down to listen to a recording and meet Ariadne auf Naxos. They tuned our ear as we listened to the recording, stopping to point out themes, to discuss the story as we followed along, reading librettos. Then the four of us went to San Francisco to see it. This was before supertitles. Our friends saw an opera each day that weekend. We thought they were crazy.

But you liked it enough to try again…
Yes, the University of Washington offered a course to cover Seattle Opera’s coming season, and the teacher was fabulous. We studied operas from the Ring, Norma, Carmen, Macbeth, Don Giovanni, La bohème. My husband and I were electrified and bought our first season subscription.

Then you took your interest to another level. You auditioned to be a supernumerary—a silent actor—onstage. You got the performance bug!
In 1982 I saw Seattle Opera was going to present Rigoletto. I had a fuzzy memory that when I was about twelve, my mother had been a super in Rigoletto in Los Angeles. She was very excited and thought of course I would be too. I have a memory of being involved in the production—in a gunny sack being dragged across the stage. I was not the least bit happy about any of it. The experience became the inspiration for my poem “The Prop Bag Needed a Body.”

Great title!
So in 1981, I applied to Seattle Opera, and was cast in the show. There I was, standing on the opera stage in fabulous costumes as the Duke, in the middle of his aria, leaned me into a backbend and kissed me on the neck. I became even crazier and more fanatic about opera than our friends who had introduced us.

Carol Levin standing between Rigoletto (Richard J. Clark) and the Duke (Enrico Di Giuseppe) in 1982
Chris Bennion, photo

Being a Seattle Opera supernumerary has been a family affair for you. Tell us a little about that history, and what opera has meant to your family. You must have some fun family memories.
In Cavalleria rusticana, my husband was the first person to come onstage as the curtain rose, leading a burro. Of course at one performance the burro decided to put on his brakes and not leave the stage as Geo was leading him off. Geo managed to engage his imagination in order to solve the problem. I can’t remember how our son, Ari Steinberg, and his wife, Suzanne DeWitt, joined us as supers, but Ari eventually became the person who cast supers in productions. We were a very jolly team. In The Tales of Hoffman I was one of the women in a bordello, and Ari was cast as a “love slave” standing guard next to me. I still remember how much we laughed about it. There is a poem in my book about Suzanne and me, “Suzanne and I Were Cast.”

Can you bring us behind the scenes a bit? What is it like to be backstage in rehearsal?
The Daughter of The Regiment in 1990 was the first opera Linda Brovsky directed for Seattle. I was scheduled to be at the first all-day rehearsal with the chorus because, cast as a maid, I had a lot of stage business to learn. I watched Brovsky begin to block the chorus’s entrance that would become a ball scene. It was a big chorus—I don’t know how many singers—but within a few minutes Brovsky knew each person’s name and gave each one an individualized character complete with intentions and stage business. I watched as the scene came alive, that very first meeting. An amazing director in complete service of the drama.

That rehearsal explains my favorite aspect about being part of the production of an opera—experiencing how a disparate group of people come together and slowly the stage blocking, the character roles, costumes, the words and music, the cues, come into existence where there was nothing before. At each rehearsal new elements come to life, by repeating and refining and then finally the makeup and wigs, and dressing room excitement, lights, and the orchestra and audience and first night jitters and each person on each side of the stage live in this world created and then the bows and applause. It is a magical fantastical transformation.

Thematically, a recurring topic in Confident Music Would Fly Us to Paradise is a tension between silence and voice. Tell us a little about the origin of that theme, for you.
That theme of tension between silence and voice is inspired by my childhood. As a child living in my grandparents’ home, I felt paralyzing fear when I was spoken to. I was an adult before I realized that, in that house, I had been avoided, only spoken to when it was absolutely necessary. Safety was silence. My mother and I moved in with them when I was somewhere between three and four. I guess they were not happy about their least favorite daughter and her small child arriving. People described me as very shy.

Did shyness have anything to do with your becoming a writer?
This answer is the long way around. The moment I understood I was dyslexic (after I was a young adult) I was freed. I flunked first grade, the result of refusing to go to school, feigning illness out of fear because I could not understand the big alphabet letters gaily written on the walls of the classroom. When I eventually learned to read, I went to live in books. I didn’t need to speak to anyone as I was sponging up language. Safe in the library and used-bookstores. I still love the smell of those places. When I was about eighteen, I got curious about speaking. Somewhere along the way—maybe when I started teaching dance—I discovered I love communicating aloud.

How does a poem begin, for you as a writer?
Usually with what I would call a riff. Some chunk of words I have read or heard, or dreamt, or comes to me (often, when I am brushing my teeth or in the bathtub). I just start playing around writing everything. I visualize it like an artist flailing images wildly onto a surface to catch whatever is floating by; it’s messy. Eventually, I begin to shape it like a sculptor not knowing exactly where it is going. Playing with braiding various topics to see what works. Anything can be the subject of a poem.

Later I go word to word asking each one: Is this what I want to say? Is this the most active way to express it? Is this a cliché? Delete. Is this repetitive? Delete. Thinking about verbs, nouns, pronouns, carefully weeding extra adverbs. Using line-breaks to accentuate and shape what I am expressing, experimenting with how it is visually scored on the page, wondering if it needs more breathing space or if what I am saying works better being very compressed, etc. Sometimes I am having a great good time sometimes, on rare occasions a gift poem just suddenly appears almost fully formed (examples of this are Mark Morris: Paul Hindemith, Kammermusik No. 3). But sometimes composing a certain poem can cause me to be extremely agitated. I can work on poems for decades.

As you’ve been doing poetry readings for this book, which poem has evoked an interesting response from the audience?
The response to the poem “A Cool Hand Settles the Score” has been interesting. The historical context for this poem—about Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites—is the Carmelite Nuns in the French Revolution who were guillotined.

In the last act I was one of the rabble standing onstage, with the tenor Paul Gudas cheering, my back to the audience. The 12 nuns begin singing the most exquisite refrain as the first one mounts the plank and walks up until she’s out of sight. We hear this thump, then they all begin the song again, and it continues with fewer singers until it is just one voice. I started thinking about Poulenc, he had to live this to create it in music. What he must have felt deciding note by note. So many people have responded to that poem; people who are not “opera people” have said that was a favorite. My yoga teacher came to my book-launch reading. At our next class she was talking about that poem as she walked into the studio so animated, telling everyone the story and everybody got excited, curious to see it, people whose eyes usually glaze over at the mention of opera and poetry. I told them where to buy the book. “The Prop Bag Needed a Body,” and “Madama Butterfly’s Mother” have also been getting comments.

Any onstage moments at Seattle Opera you wish you could bottle up and take with you forever?
Boris Godunov, my last opera, had been a favorite of mine before Seattle Opera produced it. I was part of the Coronation Scene. I entered stage left, carrying a banner surrounded by the chorus, and they sang their hearts out and the pealing bells and the bells and the bells. Just thinking about that music—a huge moment—every cell of my body begins to vibrate. Totally transported as Alexander Anisimov sang, an unmatchable bass voice filling the house. I would love to live that again. Every performance, when I was not onstage, I sat on the side watching, the whole four hours completely enveloped in the story, the music. I couldn’t get enough of it.


  1. what a wonderful and interesting interview, Carol.


  2. How sweet this is, to see you, your book cover and your poetry married to the opera, right here, on the opera blog.

  3. I love how Carol allows her love of opera--music and drama to permeate her understanding of being a human being.

  4. I am so impressed with Jonathan Dean and his editing of my interview in which I included twice as much information. Thank you to Seattle Opera for supporting my book. Here is more info about Confident Music Would Fly Us to Paradise.
    Carol Levin