An Opera Triple Bill
Director's NoteAn Opera Triple Bill
This evening, you’ll be enjoying music by Igor Stravinsky, John Harbison, and Ana Sokolović. But are you experiencing three operas, or one? Each of these acts is a striking piece of music-theater in its own right, and my central task has been connecting them into a cohesive unit. Opera is, after all, an extravagant act of synthesis: music, theater, dance, and design merge to create an illuminating whole.
When I began preparing these operas, I was immediately captivated by the history surrounding Stravinsky’s ballet with singers: Pulcinella. This divertissement was commissioned in 1920 by ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev for his legendary company, the Ballet Russes. Diaghilev and his cohorts were, in fact, the first to give young music student Stravinsky a major commission (The Firebird), and their other successes with the composer included Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, and Les noces. In an interesting twist, I found that Canadian-Serbian composer Sokolović has cited Les noces as a direct inspiration for her contemporary a cappella opera Svadba (Wedding), the third act of this evening’s program. Upon discovering this connection, I knew that I wanted to create a production that traced the artistic lineage from the Ballet Russes’s Pulcinella, through Harbison’s brutalist fairy tale Full Moon in March, all the way to Sokolović’s Svadba.
Each act of this triptych highlights a different traditional style or trope used by Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes: Pulcinella (a neoclassical commedia dell’arte); Full Moon in March (inspired by popular ballets based on exotic themes and characters such as Cléopâtre, Schéhérazade, and Thamar); and Svadba (a twist combining the country girls of Les Sylphides with the shocking paganism of The Rite of Spring.) More than just an exercise in style, these three operas all ask the same central question: Why do we make art?
In our Pulcinella, we see a very chaotic creative process as the means of arriving at a tightly controlled, brightly colored world. A dance company begins with a bare stage and, over the course of 20 minutes, rehearses and creates a show from nothing. Almost instantaneously, the company reconfigures their set pieces into the next act: Full Moon in March. In this piece, Harbison’s libretto comes almost verbatim from a symbolist text by Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats, and we see the role of music played out doubly—not only does it heighten the stylized drama to the point of ceremony but it also serves an important plot point: The Queen agrees to give her hand and all her power to any musician who can sing a song that truly moves her. Reminiscent of both Turandot and Salome, Full Moon in March exposes the transactions between men and women, and uses the rites and rituals of marriage to say something even stranger about the creative act.
In staging Sokolović’s Svadba, our design team sought to place the opera within a lineage of beautiful and eerie ballets featuring contadine (country girls) and their anxieties about growing up and possibly growing apart from each other. Milica and her friends are all ambivalent about the former’s upcoming marriage, and they use the ceremonies associated with femininity, betrothal, and marriage to enact the superstitions that have arisen from their fear and excitement. There have been many beautiful modern-day productions of this opera, but the text is derived from Serbian folk idioms, and so I hope I am not taking too large of a creative liberty to place this opera at the beginning of the 20th century. As Stravinsky said of Pulcinella, “It was a backward look, of course—but it was a look in the mirror, too.”
My hope is that we can begin to see even the most avant-garde or stylized art as an extension of the more common habits, rites, and rituals that we use every day to give structure and meaning to our own lives.
An Opera Triple Bill
A touring ballet company arrives in an empty theater to prepare for a performance of three entertainments in their repertoire: a comedy (Pulcinella), a tragic fairy tale (Full Moon in March), and a ballet blanc (Svadba). Almost immediately, the impresario and his troupe begin rehearsals for the first act: Pulcinella, a diversion in the style of commedia dell’arte. Onstage, the details of the Pulcinella story begin to emerge, among the company’s interruptions for costume fittings and cigarette breaks: a shepherd loves a shepherdess, but mistakenly thinks she is being false to him when he sees her with an old fool (the titular Pulcinella, or Punch) from the village. Pulcinella’s wife becomes jealous of the beautiful shepherdess but, as in all comedies, the story ends with two loving couples being reunited. Finally, rehearsals and preparations come to an end, and the ballet company performs a manic pantomime. Almost as soon as the performance begins, it is over. The company quickly changes the scene to its next act.
Full Moon in March
A veiled Queen awaits candidates in a competition. The man whose song most moves her will be judged the best, and she has promised both her hand in marriage and her kingdom to the winner. A ragged, dirty Swineherd arrives alone to sing for the Queen, having heard she will be won on a night like tonight—a full moon in March. Before the Swineherd sings, the Queen warns him not to make the mistake other men have made: he should not confuse her virgin beauty for kindness. Although she does not wish to hurt him, the Queen is repelled by the Swineherd’s hubris and hears his words as insults when he makes light of the task (“What nonsense shall I sing?”). He begins a story from his country: of a woman who begat a child from a drop of blood that entered her womb. The Queen orders the Swineherd’s execution and reveals her face to him as he is lead away. The Queen’s two attendants take on the personas of the Swineherd and the Queen herself, foreshadowing the final strange scene. The Queen is revealed, holding the head of the Swineherd. No longer able to speak, the Queen’s voice is taken over by her attendants. She is waiting to hear the Swineherd’s song from his cold lips. When she begins to hear the music, the Queen, now crazed, dances with the head, her arms covered in his blood. The attendants close the curtain.
A group of girls (Danica, Lena, Zora, Nada, Ljubica) gathers to sing to their friend Milica, who is getting married the next day. The girls sing of how much Milica’s mother will weep when she leaves home since she is an only child. They praise her beauty and urge her not to forget them. Milica reveals that, although she is marrying Jovan, she would have preferred to marry another, Ilija. The girls dress Milica’s hair in a special way and begin enacting other rituals to ready the bride-to-be for her upcoming wedding. They urge Milica to prepare the gifts she should offer her future husband, and promise she will be happy with her new family. The group braces for Milica to leave girlhood and enter into marriage (“The grape from the vine detached...”), but they urge her once more to go ahead without them.
Bard Conservatory Graduate Vocal Arts Program Presents
An Opera Triple Bill
Pulcinella, Igor Stravinsky
Full Moon in March, John Harbison
James Bagwell, conductor
Svadba, Ana Sokolovic
Jackson McKinnon, conductor
The Bard Conservatory Orchestra
James Bagwell, conductor
Alison Moritz, director
A luminous triple bill of operatic rarities, exploring the rites and rituals of marriage. Celebrate modernism and romance, imagined through the lens of impresario Sergei Diaghilev and his revolutionary company the Ballet Russes.
All proceeds benefit the Scholarship Fund of the Graduate Vocal Arts Program.
Photos by Karl Rabe
Performance ScheduleMarch 9 at 7:30 pm
March 11 at 3 pm
LocationFisher Center, Sosnoff Theater
$5 tickets for Bard undergraduate and graduate students are made possible by the Passloff Pass and available in advance for select performances.