Saturday, April 9, 2011

Searching Sopranos: Monodramas at the New York City Opera

By Mary Sheeran

I was amused to read that the New York City Opera’s production of Monodramas, three one-act operas, each for soprano and orchestra, featured “new music,” even though composers Arnold Schoenberg died in 1951 and Morton Feldman passed away in 1987, although John Zorn is still around at age 57. But give New York City Opera credit – it is tackling its tough economic reality with imagination as it tries to find a niche in this most nichified cultural world of ours. With Monodramas, the company is giving all it’s got: The visual aspect of each of the operas is stunning, as is the singing of the three women who perform quite demanding music: Anu Komsi (La Machine De L’Etre), Kara Shay Thomson (Erwartung), and Cyndia Sieden (Neither).

Although I am left wondering if anyone has composed a one-act monologue for voice other than soprano, or written a libretto other than deadly serious, there was one absolutely gorgeous image in the second opera, Erwartung (Waiting). Of all the three operas, Erwartung was the most vivid and the most dramatically coherent, if that last word fits any of them. A woman wanders in a forest, which is either symbolic, dream, or real. The core of the piece focuses on one desperate moment in her life, and as she stands on stage, a projection (like a cartoon bubble) emerges from her head and grows. Soon we see in that “bubble,” bountiful trees in springtime, blooming pink blossoms tossing in a breeze that take over the stage as they fall to their death, leaving the bare branches. It is stunning. During the opera, blossoms float down from above, and they have a somewhat mystical physicality – they never quite land on anyone or anything. Are they a real or a dream?

The woman wanders in the forest, singing of her lover and of her nightmare. “I used to believe,” she tells the forest, “that I was happy.” As she wanders, a small house appears – she can hold it in her hand. It is placed in back, as if on a hill, a light in the upper story indicating that this is where all the action she sings of takes place. Her singing veers from love to anger to grief to wailing lament. Her lover, whom she trips over in the forest like a tree trunk, is dead. Or is he going to be dead? Did she kill him? Will she? Did someone else? Is this all a dream or a wish? Something in her has died, or he has died, and the house vanishes with the closing dark. Thomson holds our attention in a story that may seem tired; she has a lush, powerful voice that I would even call courageous. It goes anywhere fearlessly.

Whereas Thomson summoned her words from her soul and threw them at us, in the first opera (La Machine De L’Etre), Anu Komsi rarely sings any words, just sounds with an occasional sputtering of words that are frustrating because they don’t come close to what is inside her and what she must tell us. Pictures emerge above her in that “bubble”, often nonsensical, but in their nonsense, they do make sense of the singing, or you think they do. Then a blaze of light, or fire, ends it all.

During the third piece, Neither, Cyndia Sieden manages the feat of singing for three quarters of an hour a mere 87 words by Samuel Beckett and touring with frustration (yes, again!) a stage resembling a cross between a disco and a photography exhibit. Watching, I suddenly found another voice in my head, that of Judy Garland in that moment in "A Star Is Born," where she is saying, “searching, searching,” in mock serious tones. Exactly. I try to turn Judy off (impossible) for this was Very Serious, after all, being Beckett: “from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself by way of neither.” Got that? Honestly, for all the effort put into this with an ensemble and rotating mirrors rising up and floating down, neither here nor there, and flashing colors all around – well, seriously, this really ought to have been a concert piece.

Uniting these pieces were our emcees, if you want to call them that, one very fashionably skinny woman and one quite handsome fellow both in evening dress and who stood very still in front of the curtain as the audience settled in. The curtain went up to reveal an ensemble, each person draped in what could be called a burka. Our emcees would roam through these and unveil a person or a soul beneath. Sometimes they would unveil several similarly dressed people and choose who would do the singing for us. In Neither, our emcees wandered through the disco/gallery along with other fashionably dressed people who looked like each other.

The audience, which extended the three singers well deserved ovations, otherwise seemed cool to the productions. One woman remarked, “It’s like the emperor’s new clothes. There’s really nothing here to see.” Another summed it up rather accurately, “These three pieces are about the same thing.” Searching, searching, sang Judy. Even so, the discussions continued in the lobby. Was it real or a dream?

I hope the talking continues. New York City Opera has contributed so much to the music world, and it’s struggling for its life now as it aims for the brave and not the safe. I hope that the spareness of its winter will give way to a long, blossoming, and gorgeous springtime.

Monodramas: La Machine De L’Etre; Music by John Zorn; Sung by Anu Komsi. Erwartung; Music by Arnold Schoenberg; Libretto by Marie Pappenheim; Sung by Kara Shay Thomson. Neither; Music by Morton Feldman; Text by Samuel Beckett; Sung by Cyndian Sieden. Conductor: George Manahan. Production director and set designer: Michael Counts. Choreographer: Ken Roht. Costume designer: Jessica Jahn.

The New York City Opera at the David H. Koch Theater in Lincoln Center. For information, go to

Mary Sheeran is a singer and writer whose recent novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, takes place during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet ( Her CD recording, Through the Years, is available on CD Baby.

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