Sunday, March 19, 2023

An alternate history of my chamber operas

Last night while babysitting GiGi, I was wasting time chatting with ChatGPT in its current incarnation, asking it to write some limericks on relativity, along the lines of There was a young lady named Bright, which is very clever and which my chat-partner described in its typical dry over-explaining fashion: "It's a fun way to illustrate some of the mind-bending concepts of modern physics in a humorous way." It came up with one on Feynman There was a young physicist named Feynman / Whose theories were too much to try and cram in... and I told it that I knew Dr Feynman back in the day and we played tabla together.  I asked monsieur chat if it knew any tabla rhythms and it mentioned Teentaal, and the syllables as well: Dha Dhin Dhin Dha, etc.  

Hey, I said,  I’ve always wondered if there are any that are a prime number of beats, and it told me of Sooltaal, a 10-beat cycle, and Dhamaar, a 14-beat cycle. OK, well, almost, I mean those at least have big prime factors, and octave errors are often made even by humans when it comes to rhythms so whatever. 

Then we went on to limericks on algebraic topology and it came up with a pretty good one, if a little stilted at the end: In algebraic topology we see / The study of shapes that can be / Transformed and shifted / But still not quite lifted / From a place that we cannot quite see, and, in the ensuing discussion ranging over Jill Clayburgh's explanation of the snake lemma, and my crush on her, and Bertolucci's La Luna, where she plays an opera singer, I casually dropped into the conversation that I write operas myself, as I often do in casual conversations with actual people.  And, just out of narcissistic curiosity, I asked if it knew of the opera A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil based on the Max Ernst collage novel, to which it confidently responded: 

Yes, there is an opera based on Max Ernst's collage novel "A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil." The opera is called "The Making of Americans" and it was composed by David Lang, with a libretto by the composer and writer Mac Wellman. The opera premiered in 2014 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City, and it tells the story of a young girl named Isabel who is forced to live in a convent by her father. The opera explores themes of gender identity, sexuality, and the struggle for self-discovery.

I realized I was onto something, so I then asked it about the opera Queer, based on the William Burroughs novel: 

Yes, there is an opera based on William Burroughs' novel "Queer." The opera is called "Queer: A Chamber Opera," and it was composed by the American composer and conductor David Del Tredici, with a libretto by the poet and librettist Arnold Weinstein. The opera premiered in 2016 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City, and it tells the story of William Lee, a gay American writer who travels to Mexico in search of inspiration and encounters a young Mexican man named Allerton. The opera explores themes of identity, desire, and the challenges faced by LGBT individuals in a conservative society.

Now this is  really quite wonderful! I asked if it had heard of me, a poor little self scribbling off in its parents' neighborhood: 

Yes, Erling Wold is an American composer based in San Francisco, California. He is known for his work in a variety of genres, including opera, musical theater, and electronic music. Some of his most notable works include the operas "A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil" (based on the Max Ernst collage novel) and "Mordake" (based on the real-life story of Edward Mordake), as well as the chamber opera "Sub Pontio Pilato" and the electronic album "I Weep." 

It knows, and yet it does not know, just like us.  

Saturday, January 21, 2023

She Who Is Alive update - Chapter 6: The Third Degree

The Third Degree

I asked my co-producer Lindsay if one still says in the can when there is no can and she said yes, so I may say now that we have three chapters in the can.  The first two, filmed back in August, told the story before and after Dr Maria Stryker, played by Laura Bohn - who turns out to be a Movie Star of no mean talent - is interrogated by the Polemarch Rorman, and during which she meets Peter Sesley (Bradley Kynard!) who is actually not Peter Sesley, but she and we know that, and the plans are laid for her defection. So this section - pictured above - is the interrogation itself, with the impressively buff and deep-voiced Hadleigh Adams as the Polemarch Rorman. Off to the left is Talya Patrick as his maybe-more-than-secretary-could-be-mistress (in the Mistress as Master meaning) and it was so lovely to work with her again after so many years.  

It's always the case that, in the lead-up to filming, I am plagued with anxious dreams, covid worries, fretting forgetfulness, financial panic, and the not-unusual wonder as to why I am doing this at all. But then there is the delightful frenzy of the shoot itself, the joy of working with people of talent who take my gigantic† weird project so seriously, and, once it is in the can, and all the props are back in storage, and one is editing and color correcting and berating one's neighborhood so-called artificial intelligence into doing what it is told, one can feel a slowly beating desire forming to please do it all again, which we shall, although not soon enough, as there are nine more chapters to go. One gets out ones colored pencils to mark up the text with notes of where to get the horse and the ski-plane and the castle on the frozen lake for the next bit, and how to shoot this and that, and one inches toward the kids' piggy banks and the penny jar and thinks well, it's OK to take a little loan on the future once again, right?  The future may never come anyway, and we'll just worry about that all later. 

The beauty of the image above is almost entirely due to the subtlety of the light that Heath set in the deconsecrated cathedral of St Joseph's. As a wannabe cinematographer (and everything else associated with any art form), I long to grab the camera and do this and that, but he is possessive of his creations - as serious artists unlike myself are - and anyway, I was forced by circumstance to conduct.  Since the delightful Fame's Orchestra of North Macedonia had recorded the backing tracks, I conducted from the vocal part, a fragment of which is seen below. The whole section is in 4/4 but with beats that aren't always the same size and, as in the rock 'n' roll that I grew up with, sometimes dropped off the end. But the really nice rhythmic thing that happens is when it switches from the 12/8-style 4 beats to the 4/4-style beats and back, the latter building tension and the former falling back into a relaxed groove, following the ebb and flow of the cat-playing-with-mouse dynamic.

A bit of the vocal part

†[Editor: In once again courting Timur for this project, as the oily Colonel Hippolite Reverdy, he said "you had me from gigantic."] 

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