I once took eight years of voice training from a professor who taught voice to opera students. Although I did not sing opera, he worked with me, improving my range, and control. I remember asking him about opera, as it seemed a distant art form to me at the time.
Surprised at my statement, he told me, that in his opinion, opera was anything but distant. Opera is being surrounded by sound, image, words, and emotion. If you are lucky enough to go to the opera in Europe, he said, where the halls are small with many balconies, you will experience opera as being in the middle of that sound. The soaring notes of a soprano are sung to your heart, and the tenor sings from your soul, and the baritone rocks the core of your being. It is a stunning display of art, and talent. It will take hold of you, bring you in, and never leave your memory.
This week, I was lucky enough to have that experience, not in a quaint Italian hall, but at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
My husband and I attended the Nashville Opera Company’s production of The Fall of the House of Usher based on the famous Edgar Allen Poe short stort, adapted by Phillip Glass with libretto by Arthur Yorinks.
If I had read Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Fall of the House of Usher, it had long been misplaced from my memory. And yet, in searching YouTube, I looked through dozens of different videos of productions of The Fall of the House of Usher, some going back as far as a silent film made in Paris in 1929. I found it fascinating that this short story has such a timeless hold on the imagination of the theatrical world.
The idea of the maverick genius Philip Glass writing an opera was intriguing enough, and having seen some of his work, it seemed to make perfect sense to me. So, we dressed for the occasion and arrived in time for the pre-opera talk given by the artistic director, John Hoomes, who was clearly excited about this production. Mr. Hoomes explained that the production designer had taken video images of the rehearsal and was projecting them, both from a rear projection screen and from a front projection screen, with the cast in the middle. I am a playwright myself, and I have used both rear projection and front projection, but never both at the same time. Apparently the stage directions that accompanied the libretto were very minimal, except for one: all sound was to be amplified, at the request of the writer, Philip Glass. Interesting.
The opera’s orchestra was small and extremely talented. In fact the cast is small, by opera standards.
The opera begins with the reading of a strange letter, a letter beseeching a young man, William, to come to the aid of a boyhood friend from school, Roderick Usher. The letter tells of sadness and unbearable melancholy, of some inexplicable malady that has come over Roderick, and which begs William to visit. So sure is he that William will come, Roderick admonishes him not to bother to replying, as he knows William will leave immediately, which William does. To me, this letter was intimate, almost one that a lover would write. We learn soon enough that William never even really knew Rodrick that well.
And so begins a tale of mystery and madness, all set to the relentless beauty of recurring music, in the most inventive setting I have ever seen. The production designer, Barry Steel, was a most important player here, enveloping the cast with ghostly gothic images, ethereal and dread-inspiring, working seamlessly with the score. This led me at points to whisper to myself and my companion the word, “brilliant “. I had the feeling that if any of the first creators of classic opera productions had had these tools at their disposal, they would have used them in an instant.
That said, madness is not an easy place to visit.
The house itself is gloomy, foreboding. There are questions upon questions. Did the brother really assault his twin sister, driving her mad? Is the malady that both Usher descendants suffer from brought on by a sinister aspect in the house itself? Who is the resident doctor and what is his diagnosis of the the malady afflicting brother and sister? Is this unhappiness a judgement on the brother and sister who have no “earthly thing to do”? Was the sister really buried alive? Is there any way to figure out what really happened?
In my reading afterward, I found a short story of Edgar Allen Poe’s where he describes the horror of being buried alive. Apparently it was a common fear in the early 19th century that was finally dispelled after the American Civil War with the advent of embalming.
The House of Usher is out of balance. It is falling. Yet, I was struck by the balance of the fine performances.
The costumes were perfect. The direction was great, though I thought the use of a doll to imply that the twin sister is a little girl, when the possible crime of incest happened, was a bit heavy handed. A minor point.
It was a brave and stunning production. It all fit together.
In the end, as one of the opera enthusiasts next to me said, “It is really like all tragic operas. Everybody dies, or goes mad.”
The soaring notes of the soprano, the tenor, and the baritone, along with the brilliant display of visual art and dramatic talent, took hold of me, brought me in, and will never leave my memory.
Bravo, cast and crew. Well done.