Retaking the Stage: What Artists Can Be in Our Society

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Composer Lei Liang and soprano Susan Narucki were aware they were delving into a topic of immense importance in their new chamber opera, Inheritance , which deals with guns and gun violence. So they didn’t really need a reminder of the issue’s urgency when a gunman murdered 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue gathered for Shabbat morning services on October 27, the day of the opera’s third and final performance at the University of California San Diego.

“That Saturday performance was very difficult, personally,” said Narucki, who produced the opera and sang the central role of Winchester Repeating Arms Company heiress Sarah Winchester. Narucki, like Liang, is on the UCSD music faculty and they had previously collaborated in the one-woman chamber opera Cuatro Corridos, whose four stories (set by Liang, Hilda Paredes, Arlene Sierra, and Hebert Vázquez) dealt with human trafficking.

“Can art make a difference?” Narucki asked. “I have to say, when we were going onto the stage Saturday evening, I thought, ‘What can make a difference?’ There’s a part of me that felt we’ve gone so far in the direction of just not hearing each other—we’ve normalized insanity—that nothing could make a difference.”

That moment of hopelessness passed, as Narucki possesses a strong core belief in music’s transformational potential. After a moment of silence in memory of the shooting victims, conductor Steven Schick gave the downbeat and the opera opened with a percussive volley that could have been mistaken for gunshots. “I think what ends up happening, and the whole cast felt this way, is there’s a kind of intensity you give to your performance in situations like that,” she said. “It’s difficult, but it seems like it’s a cry to try to break through that wall of indifference.”

 

Whether the piece—with a libretto by Matt Donovan, design by Ligia Bouton, and stage direction by Cara Consilvio—succeeded on that level can only be gauged by the individuals in the audience, but there was another wall that this unusually powerful work breeched in its immediate connection with a timely, complex, and controversial political and social issue: the apparent barrier between life and new music.

 

“On the one hand we’re at this experimental music center [UCSD’s music department], redefining what music can be,” said Liang, who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2015 for his saxophone concerto Xiaoxiang (which has its own political subtext). Like Xiaoxiang—indeed, like most of his works—Inheritance tests, and even expands, the limits of the opera’s eight-member instrumental ensemble (two clarinets, trumpet, two percussionists, guitar, harpsichord and contrabass), creating a unique and wide-ranging sonic palette that extends far beyond the mere use of harmonics and multiphonics. “You can discover a lot of new things in things we thought were old,” said Liang, who is also research artist-in-residence at UCSD’s California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. “It’s just the way of thinking was old, the way of playing was old.

“[On the other hand,] Susan and I share this passion that we shouldn’t think of ourselves in a box. Of course there are a lot of things that are kind of fun just because you discover something new, but they have to find their right context, their right message, their relevance to the story. With all these inventions and creating our own new music language, we cannot disassociate ourselves from the importance of what is really urgent in our society. We have to face it.”

PURITY AND IMPURITY

While it’s difficult to generalize that Liang’s impulse to engage with social and political issues is shared by a growing number of composers in an increasingly polarized and politically charged environment, politics is proving to be fertile ground for composers looking to connect with an audience, and not only in chamber opera (a form Du Yun also used in her 2017 Pulitzer-winning Angel’s Bone, which offered an allegory on human trafficking) and opera (whether John Adams, who has repeatedly relied on current social and political themes, most recently in the 2017 Girls of the Golden West or David T. Little, in particular his 2016 opera JFK, but also his earlier Soldier Songs and Dog Days).

 

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