Posted on Thu, Jul. 21, 2005

The Philadelphia Inquirer

So this is opera? Penn poet pens surreal venture

Inquirer Music Critic

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 confidence.

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 correspondence.

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 far.

"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 enlightenment!"


Read a sampling of Charles Bernstein's essays at

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at 215-854-4907 or Read his recent work at

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