Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Telling a Social Story

Telling a Social Story

by Richard Byrne

With leaner productions no longer tied to the big stage, contemporary composers of operas are casting a fearless gaze upon some of the most serious issues in modern society — including human trafficking, terminal illness, and gender transition.

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Faculty artist Ah Young Hong performs in Michael Hersch’s opera On the Threshold of Winter at Peabody.

Samuel Mungo, managing director of thePeabody Opera Theatre, is blunt, even bullish. “We live in a golden age of American opera,” he says.

Until the last few decades, one might not have thought so. The emotional grandiosity and lavish production values of traditional opera have long been fettered tightly to audience expectations, with little room for growth.

A new sort of opera is now pressing its claims, often in smaller performance spaces. These works strip away massive stage machinery, thin plots, and bombast to cultivate greater intimacy and emotional forthrightness. “The fat lady’s dead,” quips Mungo.

“She represents something that was not accessible by the average human being not steeped in classical ideals.”

Traditional opera is expensive, and shrinking institutional budgets have driven some of the shift to newer modes. And while Mungo says that “there will always be a place for opulent opera productions,” contemporary composers have seized upon the opportunities offered by a “leaner and meaner opera.”

In operas such as George Benjamin’s Written on Skin (2012), or Thomas Adès’ The Exterminating Angel (2016), postmodernism exerts a profound gravity. These composers deploy shifting narrative viewpoints, surrealism, and fallen angels to mirror the
kinetic energies of wired modern life.

Yet an even more profound development is the fearless gaze that today’s operas cast upon some of the most serious issues in modern society: human trafficking, terminal illness, gender transition, and military hazing.

Peabody faculty composers Du Yun and Michael Hersch (BM ’95, MM ’97, Composition) are among the artists engaged in this important work.

Du Yun’s searing and combustible opera, Angel’s Bone, won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for music. It is a work that connects human trafficking to the seemingly placid surfaces of contemporary life.

Michael Hersch portraits
Michael Hersch

Michael Hersch, chair of the Composition Department, has written two acclaimed operas
grappling with terminal illness. On the Threshold of Winter and a new companion piece, I hope we get to visit soon, draw upon Hersch’s own experiences with cancer, as well as poetical and personal explorations of terminal illness.

Hersch says that “over the years, a broadening expectation of what the operatic experience might mean has allowed an augmenting freedom for composers to continue to push the format into areas which may stray from historical expectation.”

du yun
Du Yun

Du Yun agrees that opera is undergoing “a big renaissance” that “allows producers to put more mobile operas on a smaller stage. The opera is no longer tied to the big stage.” She is not surprised to find herself in a wave of composers exploring opera.

“It’s not just me,” she continues. “It’s all the people I’ve been working with over the past 10 years. We’ve been growing together. And that’s very exciting.”

Mungo says the focus in these new works on creating true emotion and character “brings us to the apex of an opportunity to do some beautiful and important things. And one of those things is to tell a social story.”

Feathers Are Prickly Things

In the program notes of a concert reading of Angel’s Bone, librettist Royce Vavrak recalled the work’s conception.

“How about a piece about angels,” said I. “How about a piece about prostitution,” said she. And an idea was born.

A scene from Du Yun’s Angel’s Bone.

In the same program notes, Du Yun drew explicit connections between child prostitution in Thailand and human trafficking in the United States. She took particular note of “the middle men, the pimps” in these sordid and devastating transactions: “I am very
interested in the middle man’s mind. Why? How? Who are they? What’s going on? Why do they make the choice they make? Greed? Conviction? Desire? Lust?”

Angel’s Bone has garnered immense attention. Its disparate musical forms — choral music, the squonk of dark electronics — collide and collaborate to depict innocence wrenched violently into exploitation and perversion, and a deep darkness lurking beneath seemingly placid lives. As key lines from the libretto articulate it:

Feathers are prickly things
In the wrong hands.
The softness turns sharp
With greed.

While Du Yun is adamant that “art does not solve problems,” she does take great interest in the way that the role of art resembles and differs from journalistic efforts to grapple with social issues. “If journalists can report on a problem, why can’t a composer take that role? We should not shy away, as long as we really are doing a great job,” she says.

Du Yun points out that television can show its audiences terrible images on a 24-hour basis. Yet this repetition often degrades one’s moral responses to the tragedy. “The brain is active, but the heart dies,” she says. “It closes up.”

Art activates something else when it addresses an issue such as human trafficking. “Awareness can happen in many different forms,” she observes. “You can focus on an emotional arc, and you can align yourself to the textures in a story. It also has a sustained rippling impact. That is a powerful tool the artist has.”

Du Yun says she did not anticipate the acclaim for Angel’s Bone, and the discussions it has spurred. The key to pushing opera into new territory, she says, is to “do what you want to do, and create more of a dialogue. If you do that with integrity, bravado, and vitality, sometimes it does show.”

The Work of Dying

Elegy articulates the loss that death creates in those left behind. But Michael Hersch’s two operas — On the Threshold of Winter and I hope we get to visit soon — grapple with something more complex and immediate. Hersch’s works fuse the elegiac tradition with harrowing direct utterances of those dying from terminal illness.

Drawing on poetry, philosophy, and emails exchanged with a friend who died of cancer, Hersch’s operas are music of unsparing ferocity and pain. Grief is not mere reflection, but an intense personal struggle, as mind and spirit wrestle with inevitable and imminent death.

Mary O'Reilly.jpg
In composing I hope we get to visit soon, Michael Hersch found inspiration in emails from his close friend Mary O’Reilly (pictured above), who died from cancer.

Some of Hersch’s chamber and orchestral work draws inspiration from the works of Thomas Hardy, Robert Lowell, and Friedrich Hölderlin. But On the Threshold of Winter (2012), a monodrama in two acts, was his first opera.

“I did not attempt to write opera until I felt the work I composed required the need for the work to be seen, in addition to heard,” says Hersch, “and that which was to be observed required a particular visual atmosphere, in addition to musical elements engaging with singers or speakers.”

A staging of On the Threshold of Winter, which was made into a concert film, creates a landscape of shrouding and unveiling, small lights of truth glimpsed in vast darkness, and the visceral force of blood. The New York Times wrote that the opera’s 2014
premiere in New York “rendered the terror and indignities of terminal illness so viscerally that … it left the audience shellshocked and the soloist [Peabody faculty member Ah Young Hong (BM ’98, MM ’01, Voice)] in tears.”

Hersch himself is a cancer survivor, as is his wife, Karen Klaiber Hersch. At the same time that the composer was undergoing treatment, his close friend, historian Mary O’Reilly, also became ill from cancer and died.

O’Reilly’s death spurred Hersch to compose On the Threshold of Winter. As he cast about for words, the composer was reading Romanian poet Marin Sorescu’s The Bridge, which had been translated into English by a neighbor. The book comprises Sorescu’s final poems, written as he lay dying of cancer.

“There was a particular quality to Sorescu’s expression that I found especially searing, even outside the context of the shared experience of cancer,” says Hersch. The composer recalls thinking that the first lines of Sorescu he read resonated deeply with emails he exchanged with O’Reilly before her death:

Devils have entered me …
There are throngs of them, legions.
Hordes that kick me with unclean hooves
And poke me inside with sharp horns.
The doctors say I have one in every cell.
Goaded from somewhere inside by flames.
I’ve no idea how they might be contained.

“Mary’s death remains something very much unresolved for me and within me, and in the almost decade since she passed away, I have come no nearer to any sense of closure,” says Hersch.

So the composer went back to the emails, and found the seeds of I hope we get to visit soon in them.

The libretto also includes verse written by Rebecca Elson, a Canadian astronomer and poet who died of cancer in 1999. Hersch says Elson “seemed to be able to capture in her words many of the thoughts and feelings Mary often avoided discussing or expressing. The juxtaposition of the two women’s words completed something of a portrait of the experience of the disease as I witnessed it in Mary.”

Says Hersch, “It is not my intention to start a conversation, though I’m happy if one results. Certainly terminal illness is something that affects nearly everyone, whether personally, or with loved ones, but ultimately it is a private affair.” The public component of this private work, he adds, is to create spaces where audiences can “engage with art which doesn’t attempt in any way to sanitize certain aspects of our time and lives, and this is, no doubt, a positive thing.”

Bringing in New Worlds

As Peabody composers blaze new trails in contemporary opera that tackles social themes, Samuel Mungo is creating pathways for these kinds of works at Peabody Opera Theatre.

This winter as part of its Opera Outreach program, Peabody will present Laura Kaminsky’s As One, a chamber opera that explores the internal struggles of Hannah, a transgender character who gropes to reach balance within herself and with the world outside. Hannah’s transition finds expression in two voices: a baritone and a mezzo-soprano.

“Sometimes, the character identifies as a woman; sometimes, as a man,” says Mungo. “Sometimes, there are duets. It’s very sensitive in its ability to tell the story of the transgender experience.”

In the spring, Peabody will present a contemporary opera that investigates the human costs of conflict. Zach Redler’s The Rising and the Falling examines the interior journey of an unnamed female soldier felled by a roadside IED and placed in a coma to facilitate
the healing of her brain.

“All these people are people we know,” Mungo observes. “People we see every day. It forces the audience to look at themselves through these characters. We buy into the idea of huge emotions because the music brings us there.”

Mungo Sam Retouched
Samuel Mungo is the managing director of the Peabody Opera Theatre.

Mungo’s efforts also directly extend into the community. Earlier this year, Peabody’s Opera Outreach program presented English composer Errollyn Wallen’s Anon to audiences across the region, including those at the Kennedy Center for the Arts. Anon is a retelling of the classic 18th-century novel Manon Lescaut, but viewed through a strongly feminist prism that foregrounds its themes of human trafficking and exploitation.

Mungo says the vibrant post-show discussions for Anon showed him how vital the combination of music and theatre that opera represents can be in addressing
social issues, especially at a moment when, he believes, Broadway musicals are edging away from more daring work.

“I think opera is ideally positioned to tell the story of the oppressed,” Mungo says. “To tell the story of social ideals and issues.” He believes the new wave of operas presents “a great opportunity to fill the void and become the social mirror. To take on the mantle of being the social mirror … the art that makes you look at what we have become and what we are.”