Why Write New Operas?

Posted: March 21, 2013 by Mary Lin in Uncategorized

I (Mary) belong to quite a few different groups on LinkedIn for professionals in the performing arts. One of my favorites in the Art of Opera group. Recently I started a discussion by asking the question, “What are the best operas addressing climate change?”

The thoughtful members of this group introduced me to so many fascinating and worthy projects I’ve decided to post on them separately.

One respondent however, didn’t like the question at all, replying that “the question was irrelevant because it had nothing to do with opera.”

As others in the group jumped to my “defense”, I realized I was thankful for the comment, as it represents the point of view of many opera aficionados, and it gives me an opportunity to respond.

Here’s what I’d like to say to all those who feel this way: nobody owns opera.

Nobody has the final say on what opera is and should be. It is an evolving art form. Any art form that is required to stop growing by the experts becomes a museum artifact, a rare and expensive objet d’art, an instrument of elitism that only serves to set those who can afford to patronize it it apart from the “lower classes.”

In our operas, Ben and I try to do the exact opposite. We are giving voice to under-served populations and questions.

We are creating opera that reinterprets history in stories and music that comment on where humanity has been and where we’re going. We delight in knowing that the irreverence and iconoclasm of our “hand-stitched operas” not only keeps the art form alive, but brings it into relevance, builds new audiences, and hopefully gives strength to those whose struggles we portray. We’re part of the history and legacy of opera. If our works can inspire new generations to attend, then we’re serving not only its future, but traditional, historic and historical opera in the best way we possibly can.

“Where are the Goddamned Operas?”

Posted: March 16, 2013 by Mary Lin in Uncategorized

 Bill McKibben asked in a 2005 Grist essay on Climate Change: “Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?” http://grist.org/article/mckibben-imagine/

Bill McKibben needs to know about our goddamned opera. It’s an irresistible combination of smart, funny, sexy, and messagey – and, as far as we know, it’s the first full-on opera about climate change. I personally think that a visit to world heads of state by a pod of sexy steampunk mermaid sirens with a message about climate change might actually get the message across.  Bill, if you’re reading this, we have a pair of tickets set aside just for you. See you at the show.


Image  —  Posted: March 7, 2013 by Mary Lin in Uncategorized

We’re deep into the process of finishing the sea creatures – or so I thought. Every time I work with Liz Baumann, lighted prop and clothing creator extraordinaire, it’s as if we’re shedding our human clothing for a moment, diving deep into the oceans and witnessing what goes on there with the eyes of our invertebrate ancestors. It’s a little something like this:

From a purely aesthetic point of view, there’s no improving on nature. As artists, we’re striving to find a balance between the formalized world view of Victorian science, where Creation is a series of collectibles to be removed to the comfort of the lab or drawing room as curiosities or for further study, and the heart-expanding wonder of life on this planet — all while keeping in mind the materials of the theatre artist of the era, primarily fabric, wood, and paint. Victorian-Edwardian era German botanist and Renaissance man Ernst Haeckel offers some direction:

Haeckel's Opera Theater of Sea Creatures

Haeckel’s Opera Theater of Sea Creatures

As designers we’re always looking for the underlying pattern in things that will allow us to interpret them as a whole, to draw them in the same style, as it were. Haeckel’s drawings demonstrate the scientist’s quest for the underlying pattern as well, for repeated and unifying structures. The “line-iness” of his drawing style is a perfect starting place for an oceanscape painted by scenic artists in a cabaret or vaudeville traveling show. Can’t wait to show you some finished designs.

As David Gallo notes, we only even know about a few percent of the species living in the oceans. The question is, can we understand our essential relation to these blinking, color and pattern-changing, whimsically-painted monsters — and how would be behave if we did?

We hope Queen Victoria’s Floating Garden will help to open the eyes of wonder. To order you tickets for the Queen Victoria performances in Boulder and Denver this spring, visit: http://www.eventbrite.com/org/2576365192?s=12544702

Aren't you glad the title of our opera isn't this long?

Title Page of Sloane’s book, 1707 © House of Commons Library

During our recent visit to London, we spent some time in the King’s Library at the British Museum.  This portion of the museum documents the imperial fascination with collecting, scientifically analyzing, rationalizing, and understanding the natural world during the Enlightenment period in England.  This pre-Victorian period (loosely 1680-1820),  was inspired by the ideals of science based on objectivity and truth.  (See the proliferation of scientific books such as the one at left.) As the Victorian era continued, this scientifically-based obsession with collecting became more about owning and dominating, as the British Empire reached its zenith, spreading over the entire globe.

One of the principle themes explored in Steampunk culture and art, and of our upcoming opera, is the collision between technology and humanity.  The development of technology (microscopes, steam power, telescopes, etc.)  in the Enlightenment era and throughout the 19th century was driven by the continuing desire to understand and dominate our natural world.

This image of the old sailing vessel, the Fighting Temeraire, being pulled into harbor for destruction by the newer tug boat is a classic of JMW Turner’s subject matter — he explored the natural vs. the technological constantly in his art. It’s no secret that this battle between the natural and the technological/human-made/artificial is still going on.  JMW Turner's The Fighting Temeraire.

JMW Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, 1839

If you’re not reading NPR’s classical music blog “Deceptive Cadence,” you should probably add it to your list.  There are frequently really thoughtful posts about a variety of topics.

This recent post asked some VIPs of the classical world (composers, professors, conductors) to give their New Year’s resolutions for the classical scene…and their responses relate directly to what we’re doing here at Luminous Thread.

  • Jennifer Higdon: For all types of ensembles to discover the truth that newer music brings in younger audiences and creates an exciting event.
  • Greg Sandow: classical music institutions will have to join our current culture, lose their focus on the past, and become smarter, more challenging, and far more contemporary.
  • Tom Huizenga: More people should simply get up off the couch, out from behind their computers, disconnect from their smartphones and go out to enjoy a live classical concert.

All of the VIPs agree that the old ways of doing things aren’t working any more, and the standard classical audience is predictably filled with grey-hairs.   But we know that American audiences (here in Denver, and throughout the country) want and need art, hence our efforts to bring it.

Nuptials for the Dead at The Oriental

Ständchen, a song by Schubert sung by Craig Blackard with aerial dance by Liam LeFey and deer puppets by Kate Rinzler. Show design by Mary Lin.

Our first show in Denver, Nuptials for the Dead, took pretty traditional repertoire (Brahms, Schubert, Mahler) and put it in a dreamscape filled with strange bouffons, aerial movement, ballet, pale Edwardian costuming, and even some original arrangements of music by our fabulous music director.   Needless to say, a lot of work went into the show, and our audiences got a lot out of it.  The same is true for the recent collaboration between Central City, Ballet Nouveau, Colorado Symphony, the Mizel Center, and the Newman Center.

As we continue into our next show, we stay committed to entertaining with thought-provoking, weird, and atypical shows.  As companies and audiences, we’re redefining the future of classical music: no more silent concert halls, no more stodgy programming!

Go See Kaiser von Atlantis at Newman Center Tonight

Posted: January 17, 2013 by Ben Sargent in Uncategorized

We saw Der Kaiser von Atlantis last night performed by Central City Opera and Colorado Symphony. Kudos to Stephen Seifert of Newman Center Presents for the vision and courage to pull this off.

Kaiser von Atlantis in Colorado

This tiny, painfully beautiful gem was written in Theresienstadt, a walled citadel ghetto concentration camp where 15 to 50,000 German and Czech Jews were held during the holocaust (it was built for 6,000). Most were eventually transferred on to death camps. Many prominent people passed through Theriesenstadt, and cultural activities, such as music, theatre, and poetry were permitted as a way of keeping calm. Most of the artistic output vanished with the residents, but this score was passed between librarians in the camp, the last of whom survived. The libretto was written by Peter Kien and the music by Viktor Ullmann. Both perished at Auschwitz in 1944.

The play was conceived with great economy and use of humor and satire in a sophisticated and surreal allegory — Mary felt it was a “singing Chagall painting.” It captured the wrenching hopelessness without being maudlin, transcending circumstances using art. The death of Death; a simple turn of thought, deftly presented. The authors presumed a literate and mentally engaged audience, without pandering, despite the desperate circumstances in which it was written. With dialog like “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday – they’re all the same. I used to change days like I changed my shirts” – “You seem to still be wearing last year” the play snatches a scrap of humor from despair rather than giving in to it.

Ullmann came out of the same milieu as Mahler and Kafka. The musical score is rich and well-constructed, a lush fabric in the Post-Viennese School tradition (Ullmann studied with both Schoenberg and Zemlinsky). Its melodic, repetitive, and percussive elements served the story, deftly applied with intelligence and a light touch. The show opens with “Hello Hello” that returns throughout, bringing a rhythm of levity that one can imagine in the daily life of the crowded shtetl, and reminiscent of the Knock Knock scene from Macbeth in its grim humor.

Der Kaiser von Atlantis is a sturdy chamber opera that will survive the ages. It was a fearless work of art. It’s premiere at the camp was suppressed when the Nazis noticed the similarity between the play’s Kaiser and Hitler. Ullmann died in a gas chamber not long after. The opera was finally premiered in Amsterdam in 1975.

Beautifully performed in the pit and on stage, this was one of the most moving performances we’ve been to in recent memory. Get your tickets for tonight’s final performance here:


Ruth L. Carver, Associate Producer, Luminous Thread

Well, the title of our upcoming original opera has a slightly more descriptive title: Queen Victoria’s Floating Garden of Secrets and Natural Wonders.  Say that 10 times, fast.

Climate change is one of the major themes Luminous Thread explores in its shows, and as Denver audiences will see, we do it in a fun, farcical, irreverent manner- not your average scare tactic, or boring, preachy, educational drama.

This recent series of photos of an Australian Red Wave could almost be backdrops for Queen Victoria, as we watch a motley group of royalty and pirates combat the environment.

Brett Martin, Perth Weather Live, republished on Huffington Post

Brett Martin, Perth Weather Live, republished on Huffington Post

Whether these photos are “real” or not, they are certainly theatrical!  They remind me of the photoshopped Hurricane Sandy images.  Our opera looks at the scary facts of human/environmental interactions through the lens of operatic humor and grandiosity.  Opera often presents the most hyperbolic human situations or emotions…but if these photos are real, then our story isn’t that much of an exaggeration.  Yikes!

Mary Lin has been hard at work drawing logos for the Dreampunk season. Which of these do you like the best? We’re tempted to use them all:

Crazy about Caligula at English National Opera

Posted: June 17, 2012 by Ben Sargent in Uncategorized

A week ago we were sitting in the London Colliseum, appropriately enough, hearing and watching a performance of Detlev Glanert‘s recent opera about the famously fiendish Roman emperor Caligula. This new version of the 2006 work was sung in English by the English National Opera company. Here is a rehearsal video so you can get a sense of it:

Glanert studied with Hans Werner Henze, a prodigious and controversial composer of opera, ballet, and other works who studied and worked in 12-tone and serial music early but also in jazz, popular, and neoclassical styles. Glanert’s own style has moved on from early serial atonality to something carefully described in online sources as “balancing between Mahler and Ravel” – but I am not convinced. Less popular than those two luminaries, Alban Berg’s Lulu is far more obvious as a jumping off place to get to Caligula, which reflects Glanert’s maturing voice as a composer. Like Berg and Henze, Glanert relishes jazz stylings and has extended that impulse in this work to also include Afro-Caribbean rhythms, plus enhanced breathing as a musical effect that made me think of beat-boxing.

All this is fascinating to me because I also took a turn in 12-tone tonality during and after my own studies, working in the tradition of Alban Berg as promulgated by George Perle. Even though I left the “school” it was a marvelous thing to hear and see how the practice has not only survived, but enjoys an audience. The house was not packed, but neither was it empty. Although a piano is heard in the video above, the orchestration is lush and the conductor and musicians knew what they were about. The score was beautifully played.

Some critics panned the show, both in terms of music and theatre (here is one from The Arts Desk). Techniques used in the staging would have been considered avant garde 30 years ago, but today they seemed reliable and suitable to a serious work like this. Neither Mary nor I got offended that they had borrowed New Wave chestnuts like a static public setting — in this case stadium seating (see pic below) and unexplained figures in slow motion perambulation, either naked, with mysterious masks, or costumes apparently unrelated to the scene.

ENO cast and sports stadium set for Caligula opera by Glanert

photo: Johan Persson

The mix of symbolic and random images combined as intended to get the audience into a semiotic stupor trying to sort intentional from unintentional ideas. Groups like Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds and The Wooster Group introduced these techniques but why should we be surprised to see them appearing now as tried and true techniques for big opera productions? That’s how it’s supposed to go. We enjoyed it.