Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

[Siegmeister Celebration & Sequitur's "Songs of Sex & Solitude"]
Continental Clashes of Culture
at Convention, Cabaret and Concert

AUFBAU 65:2 January 22, 1999 p. 13
1152 words
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU

The National Opera Association's 44th annual convention, January 7-10, its first in New York in over a decade, climaxed in the production of two new one-act operas at Manhattan School of Music, and in a celebration of the 90th anniversary of the birth of composer Elie Siegmeister, whose work spanned six decades and a variety of wildly-contrasting European and American influences.

The celebration continued in tributes over WBAI radio January 10 and onJanuary 17 at Hofstra University on Long Island, where Siegmeister was teacher, conductor, and composer-in-residence from 1950 until his death in 1991. Featured in all three programs were excerpts from his first opera, Darlin' Corie, premiered at Hofstra in 1954, on a libretto by Abel Meeropol, the man who adopted the sons of Ethel & Julius Rosenberg; The Mermaid in Lock #7, and The Plough and the Stars, both on texts by Edward Mabley, the latter based on the play by Sean O'Casey.

All three works skirted the boundaries between opera and musical. Later works represented, including The Lady of the Lake after Bernard Malamud and The Marquesa of O based on Kleist's novel transposed to Mexico by librettist Norman Rosten, were harmonically more complex, while retaining the composer's characteristic vitality and melodic thrust. A highlight of the Hofstra program was the New York premiere of Siegmeister's Piano Concerto, written in 1974 for and performed by his son-in-law Alan Mandel. Opening the concert were three short clarinet pieces performed by Naomi Drucker, Co-Founder of the American Chamber Ensemble.

The program also included works by three of Siegmeister's students, including the world premiere of a setting of a James Baldwin text and Daniel Dorff's Variations on a Theme by Siegmeister, as well as Siegmeister's first published composition: "Strange Funeral in Braddock," a work written under the influence of Hanns Eisler.

Eisler et al at Knitting Factory

Eisler was the main composer represented at Sequitur's first program at the Knitting Factory January 10 & 12 , entitled "Songs of Sex and Solitude."

Six of his Brecht settings for voice & piano and one for voice & clarinet were sung by baritone Richard Lalli in their original German, serving as interludes between individual settings by mostly British composers of texts mostly in English sung by sopranos Dora Ohrenstein and Kristin Norderval, mostly solo, combining as a duet in world premieres by David Soldier and Norderval herself. Jo-Ann Sternberg and Michael Lowenstern were the clarinetists who accompanied the women, in an ensemble that also included viola, cello and bass.

Aided in the lighting department by apt fadeouts, many of the juxtapositions were theatrically effective: Ohrenstein swayed decadently to Thomas Ades' setting of Tennessee Williams' "Life Story" (conducted by Sequitur Artistic Director Harold Meltzer), followed by Norderval's entrance in beret as the ingenue whose text was taken from the Starr report of Monica Lewinsky's testimony "Under Oath" and set to music by Richard Adams-- also a world premiere. The audienced giggled at lines like "I know the world takes precedence, but..."

The overall effect, though, was nearly as sad as the simple, poignant two settings of Brecht's "Ueber den Selbstmord," by Eisler and Dominic Muldowney (in English) which followed. Lalli's excellent German was marred only by ignorance of the Berliner slang which Brecht employed in his "Kuppellied": the meaning of "Marie" is not the Virgin Mary but cash(!). In an interview with Aufbau, Lalli, who teachers at Yale, professed his obvious love for and interest in further excursions in the Brecht-Eisler repertoire. His spirited rendition of the "Solidaritaetslied," with which many sang along, clashed with the solitary theme of the program, but was welcome anyway.

The other world premieres on the Sequitur program, both sung by Ohrenstein, both with texts by their composers, were Lewis Spratlan's amusing "Vocalise with Duck" and Eleanor Sandresky's "My Goddess," on the liberation of a woman working herself up to being able to utter, joyously, the four-letter word for the female sex organ. Both were well received.

Premieres at Manhattan

So were the world premiere of Philip Hagemann's Paris and Oenone on a text by Sally Gall and especially the New York premiere of Milton Granger's talk opera, both presented by Manhattan School of Music, in conjunction with and co-sponsored by the National Opera Association.

Hagemann's subtitle--"or Did the Trojan War Take Place?"-- points up the Iliad-inspired dramaturgy, which could not help but prompt thoughts of the tuneful, through-composed Jerome Moross-John Latouche musical The Golden Apple, in which Paris is a mime. Here he is a baritone (Keith Smith), inspired by Apollo (mimed by a vocally ailing Patrick Wickham, sung from side-stage by heldentenor Micah Olson), and torn between love for the nymph he has married, Oenone (Kristin Reiersen), and the temptations of the three graces, especially the slim, trim, leotarded Aphrodite (Deborah Domanski). Director Gordon Ostrowski attempted to focus the piece by setting it in 1930s Hollywood. Props like a ukelele, and a straw-boater at for Hermes (Daniel Biaggi), added flavor.

A Deconstructed Rigoletto

Having staged and/or conducted numerous operas himself (including Offenbach's La Belle Helene at Bronx Opera), Milton Granger knows his way around the genre from all angles, and was able to maximize the comic effect of clashing cultures in his talk-show send-up of a deconstructed Rigoletto: talk opera, staged with great subtlety by Dona D. Vaughn.

TV hostess Cookie (a suave Kelli Harrington) never loses her cool, even in a boogie-tempoed female trio with her studio audience-- one character is called Studio (the pert Linda Karry), the other Audience (Sahoko Sato), who urges the guest opera characters to "find the child within." Christine Arethas, Michael Kavalhuna and Mauricio Trejo O'Reilly as Gilda, Rigoletto (continually addressed as "Mr. Letto"), and "Duke" were true to their 16th-century characters and costumes, each singing their often large snatches of Verdi arias with excellent English diction and flair. The skillful and witty modern counterpoint recalls the second act flirtation with an offstage production of La Traviata in the opera Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines by Jack Beeson, who was present and, like the rest of the audience, glowing.

When asked by Aufbau if he might possibly be Jewish (something Leonard Bernstein and others often asked Jack Beeson), Milton Granger replied:
"Sorry, not a trace of Jewish heritage in my background, at least so far as I know. My mother has diligently tried to trace our genealogy on both my mother's and father's side, but keeps getting lost somewhere in the Indiana prairie around 1850. I grew up in Kansas, and when I look in the mirror all I see is Wonder Bread, but on occasion people convince themselves that I am English (the usual guess), Norwegian (!), or some other more interesting background. It's a good question; I wonder what direction I might have taken if my ethnicity weren't so totally undistinguished."

© 1998 Back to List of Articles | last updated on: 8/1/02