So this is opera? Penn poet pens surreal venture
By David Patrick Stearns
Inquirer Music Critic
NEW YORK - The
opera's hero is dead by the end of the first scene. That's assuming an
opera can have a hero like Walter Benjamin, one of the 20th century's
most influential but maddeningly untidy aesthetic philosophers.
And that's only the start: Everything you thought you knew about opera is defied by Shadowtime,
which will play tonight and tomorrow night at the Lincoln Center
Festival. Surreal and somnambulistic, the libretto by the celebrated
poet and University of Pennsylvania English professor Charles Bernstein
takes its hero from the Spanish border (where he committed suicide
while fleeing World War II) into an underworld resembling Las Vegas
that's also inhabited by Karl and Groucho Marx, Pope Pius XII, and
Adolf Hitler. The piece doesn't dramatize Benjamin as much as it
embodies his ideas - and runs with them.
Shadowtime has been bending audience ears any number of
unprecedented directions in Munich, Paris and London prior to the two
Lincoln Center performances this week. Bernstein's libretto has been
acclaimed as one of the greatest written for the opera stage. Now
published in book form, it's better understood outside the
ultra-complex layers of music in Shadowtime, one section of which consists of 128 discrete melodic fragments, each only seconds long.
So the opera isn't a crowd-pleaser, admitted the 55-year-old
Bernstein one hot afternoon at his New York apartment. But he's
obviously relishing the theatrical cause celebre that even the greatest
poets - and certainly not ones who navigate the conservative terrain of
Philadelphia - don't always enjoy. "But I think the opera will please
the crowds that come," Bernstein says with a certain well-rehearsed
Whether that crowd includes his 13-year-old son, Felix, who has sung in the chorus of Carmen,
remains to be seen. "He likes Bernadette Peters. He likes Stephen
Sondheim," Bernstein says tentatively. "But he says he's going to
come." Such is life in a household where Dad is redrawing the
boundaries of the cutting edge.
The driving force behind Shadowtime is the blazingly
intelligent British-born, Stanford University-based composer Brian
Ferneyhough, who at age 65 has become a reference point for modernists
who refuse to come in from the cold. In an age when comprehensibility
is prized over originality, Ferneyhough's scores have been declared so
complex as to be unplayable as often as not - until recent years, at
least. Practicality demanded that he write for small ensembles, surely
nothing as compromise-prone as opera.
"As one ages, compromise is not such a major issue. If you have the
space within you, you'd better use it while you have the chance,"
explained the composer in an e-mail, his chosen medium of
A protean artist, Ferneyhough reads detective novels in Esperanto
and has devised his own language, whose vocabulary is up to 3,000
words. Similarly, Bernstein's 30-odd books have established him as one
of America's foremost "language poets," in which the sound and rhythm
of words are as important as sense. Every poem is its own language
world, with a parade of words that may include Web-site addresses or
rhyme schemes resembling pop songs. He also delivers arresting
aphorisms: "The shortest distance/ between two points/ is love."
Most librettists would be offended at the way Ferneyhough has
splintered and layered the words. Not Bernstein: "I always knew the
libretto would be one of several acoustical strata in the work. Verbal
meaning isn't contained in what you hear. It's hidden and veiled. It
reverberates and refracts. The text is an element in the way that the
timbre of the violin and the voice of the singer are elements."
The opera's most radical stroke is a breakdown of linear time:
Everything seems to happen at once, as in a cubist painting where all
sides of an object are seen simultaneously. Partly, this came about
from Ferneyhough's readings in angelology, in which angels are
described as oblivious to time, though they work within it like a
colorblind person navigates traffic lights.
"Time is the infinite sea within which experience moves, but
conventional wisdom has us editing it out instead of experiencing it as
something with its own proper demands," Ferneyhough explained. "When
listening to a piece of music, if we are totally absorbed to the extent
that, at the end, we say, 'I didn't feel time passing,' I think that
either the work or the listener has not connected properly."
So Shadowtime isn't and doesn't want to be entrancing: Its
eventfulness and unpredictability stretch rather than contract time.
The richness and density of the piece may be overwhelming for
listeners. You could wonder if Bernstein and Ferneyhough have gone too
"Too far for what?" asked Ferneyhough. "I cannot do other than I do.
The immense glories of the human spirit overwhelm all of us. Sometimes,
the sensation of incomprehension is itself a viable form of
communication. At least it will be a novelty in our age of seven-second
Read a sampling of Charles Bernstein's essays at http://go.philly.com/shadowtime