Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Good Day Moon

  Some songs and even some opera plots come to you in the middle of the night, and you'd better write them down. That's how it was with one of my songs; I once awoke around midnight to the full moon and "Goodnight Moon" wrote itself (if you think that I have full access to that kind of inspiration, think again, as that was the only time that ever happened for a song).
Photo Ben Mund
  That's also how it was with my latest work, Flour, Salt, and Moonbeams: laying in bed, I came up with an admittedly Chaplin-esque short film where a tramp, caught outside in the cold rain, manages to get a job inside the warm kitchen of a diner, making the only thing she knows how to make...tortillas.
A heavy enters and wants his corned beef hash, no tortillas, and the conflict is set, stakes are raised, and so the arc of the plot goes, and you'll have to see it to find out what happens.   This biggest difference I'm observing between composing a song and composing an opera is not so much one of size and complexity (you could even argue that an opera is a series of songs linked by transitions; that's certainly how it was in Mozart's day with the transitions being almost stock musical recitatives), but rather that to mount an opera you need partners in crime. And a dash of terror.
  The process of creating the work began long before the night I came up with the idea. The original spark was probably Chaplin himself whose films I saw as a child at The Franklin Institute (they had a theater there complete with marble columns on the side) but lately it's been the work I've done with my partner in Hungry Opera Machine, Annie Rosen.
  For months Annie and I have met at the Lotus Seed studio and there we would explore scenes, characters, movement and the stock characters associated with the Italian Commedia Dell'Arte tradition, of which we've both had some training (mine was informal, Annie has actually attended clown college).
  It sounds very fancy doesn't it, but really it was us, and other players we invited, big mats, sweat pants, walking around the room doing acting exercises (you know making human sculptures, mimed objects, absurd bus-stop scenarios or just walking around in circles acting out various life stages of made-up individuals), lots of improv, lots of movement that laid the groundwork. And as our mutual trust grows we continue to explore the comfortable and the uncomfortable. While this is all fascinating, you'll want to see the refined version.
  In another blog I'll talk about the composing itself and how I wanted to explore and extend some of Django Reindhardt styling in operatic form. That part was done mostly alone, like a painter at canvas, but the rest?
  Back in November we had a concert-version preview at the Mississippi Pizza Pub (give it a listen). That already involved three instrumentalists, four principal singer, and a director. To bring the creation fully to a stage we needed another instrumentalist, stage manager, stage hands, a sound and lighting tech, a theater, promoters, openers (not always necessary but why not?) and most importantly an audience.
  So no big surprise: theater is a communal and community event. And to someone who spends hours alone at the drawing board painting songs (as I said inspiration very rarely just hits you in the middle of the night) that's a welcome and a terrifying thought.
  Welcome because, you know, I'm finally not working alone surrounded by four walls but rather with real flesh and blood people singing their brains out.      
   Terrifying because once I hand the libretto, the music off to the director, other instrumentalists I am not in control. No matter how much I exert my vision in rehearsals, no matter how good the singing and acting is, how extraordinary the director is I must ultimately surrender to the process.
  The lesson I've learned over time, as absurd as it sounds, is to embrace that terror, that loss of control. At some point, surrender. A larger work forged by many hands has its own rewards: we create the world together and we create the conditions for the audience to experience that world with us, and hopefully the spectators carry a small piece of that world with them out of the theater.
  Sure, I had the vision, and sure Annie Rosen is directing, it's definitely not a consensus-based collective, complete with tofu and Bulgar wheat, but I can't sing the soprano part and I can't play the violin. Or build a set (funny enough Annie probably can do all three of those things). And I wouldn't want to. I'd rather attempt the perfect mix of people and have the chemistry occur in just the right explosive way. We're laying the groundwork and the final component is the audience. My hope is that after seeing this opera, you too will wake in the night and record your inspiration.

 Hungry Opera Machine presents:

a gypsy jazz comic opera by Eric Stern


Doors at 7, show at 8

at The Alberta Rose Theatre
3000 N Alberta St
Portland, OR


A full staged production of this new Gypsy Jazz Opera!

What happens when a diner cook who can only make tortillas (the most delicious in the world) encounters a mafioso customer who only wants his corned beef-hash? And what about the waitress with a mouth like a sailor and her money-grubbing boss?

Come and see as Hungry Opera Machine (the newest effort from Eric Stern of Vagabond Opera) presents FLOUR, SALT AND MOONBEAMS at the historic Alberta Rose Theatre. Classical opera singers Ian Ramirez and Dru Rutledge are joined by musical theater types Annie Rosen and Noah Mickens; with instrumentalists Paul Evans (saxophone and percussion), Mirabai Peart (violin), Drew Nelson (bass), and Eric Stern (piano). The style of the opera is a hybrid of modern classical, gypsy jazz, and slapstick comedy; complete with gorgeous arias, smokin' solos, and screwball antics in the vein of Chaplin and Keaton.


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