Bang, Bang

Locally composed world premier opera The Book Collector opens for Carmina Burana

By Eric Street

The wheel of fortune has turned once more in Dayton’s favor with an energetic push from the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance! Whether you’re in the mood for something innovative, fresh and completely new, or you’d rather indulge in a time-tested, rip-snorting crowd-pleaser that has brought countless audiences to their feet in enthusiastic ovations, there’s good news—you can have both in one exciting double bill!

Now is the time to reserve your seats in the Mead Theatre of the Schuster Center for Dayton Opera Assocation’s world premiere of Stella Sung’s The Book Collector, paired with Carl Orff’s resoundingly popular Carmina BuranaThe Book Collector is sung in English, while Carmina Burana is sung in Latin, middle-high German, and Provencal (a medieval southern French dialect). Both works in this contrasting yet ingeniously intertwined performance are conveniently surtitled in English.

A signature event of the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance, the ambitious double bill calls upon the gathered resources of the Dayton Opera, Dayton Ballet, Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, Dayton Philharmonic Chorus and Kettering Children’s Chorus, as well as guest soloists who will perform in both works. The performance opens with the world premiere of a concise one-act opera described as a “mystical landscape” by DPAA Music Alive Composer-in-Residence, Stella Sung. The recipient of a three-year Music Alive grant, Dr. Sung has composed The Book Collector specifically for Dayton’s artistic forces.

Conception

An interview with the international award-winning composer Stella Sung gives an immediate impression of quick intelligence and lively good spirits. Our lunch interview doesn’t leave us a great deal of time, but Dr. Sung excels at getting a lot of information across in a short period. This bodes well for a composer preparing for the premiere of a concise one-act opera! Clearly consumed with her work, Stella Sung practically crackles with energy and excitement about the upcoming May performances.

How did you come to write “The Book Collector?”

Stella Sung: When I started, I already knew I’d be paired with Carmina Burana, so I knew I’d only have time for one act. The question was, what could I do to prepare the listener for the Carmina Burana coming afterward?

Carmina comes from a book discovered in a monastery library in the early 1800s, but nobody knows how it came to be there. The Book Collector is a really a murder mystery.  I wrote it as a prequel to Carmina Burana. Its premise—how did that book get there in the library?

My antagonist is the Baron, the book collector who desperately wants the book. My protagonist is Franz Bierman, who also wants it. They vie for the book in a heated auction. It’s a story of obsession verging on madness. In fact, it’s almost Gothic in feel—truly operatic!

There’s a young daughter shattered by the Baron, Anna von Schott. The Baron gives her some poison to scatter among the pages of the book, to mark it.

Poisoned by the dust on the pages, Franz begins to hallucinate. His hallucination is the perfect opportunity to showcase the ballet along with the opera and the orchestra.

The Book Collector is ultimately a tale of greed and avarice. In the end we’re left with a madman, but no book. Gary Briggle is our stage director.

That’s wonderful! We remember him well for a number of excellent productions he’s staged here in the past.

SS: Yes, I’m very excited to be working with him!

How did you go about composing the work?

SS: I’ve taken a few favorite pieces from J. S. Bach to underpin the work—the C minor and the B flat minor preludes from his “Well Tempered Clavier,” and the harmonic foundations from the “d minor Chaconne.”  I chose Bach’s “Art of Fugue” theme for the hallucination dance.  There’s a connection there, endings without ending, because the fugue really doesn’t have an end.

What triggers your inspiration as a composer?

SS: I always start with a project, and this one began with a generous three-year residency grant from Music Alive. For the DPO I’m also writing music for a five-minute animation, “Farmer Glorp.” The starting point for that piece was some seeds given to us by Dayton schoolchildren.

I always try to write music appropriate to the project, taking a harmonic or melodic gesture and then developing it.

Sometimes it’s abstract, and sometimes there’s another aspect behind it, as with this opera. I have to work quickly, because I have a day job, too!  [DCP note: Dr. Sung is also a college professor, and she is presently on sabbatical.] Academia’s an interesting way of life, always trying to find that creative spark to inspire us and our students, to keep us going.

We’re creating a digital set, done by the Ninjaneers. They made sets for my first opera, The Red Silk Thread. It went so well that I wanted to do another digital set.  For our digital set, we’re doing 3-D mapping on the surface of the scrims and props.

That should make transportation considerably easier if you take it on the road.

SS: Yes, the beauty of a digital set is that you can take it anywhere.  The final scene will have a cathedral crumbling before your eyes, so the digital approach is great for making impossible things possible. Our characters will flow from The Book Collector into Carmina Burana, which also will have a digital setting. So this is a big production, and the culmination of my residency here. It’s been great!

Who’s your librettist? (In opera-talk, that’s the person responsible for writing the words.)

SS: I skype with my librettist, Ernest Hilbert, who lives in Pennsylvania.  Coincidentally, Ernie’s day job is with an antiquarian book dealer, Baumans.  We cranked out The Red Silk Thread and our happy collaboration continues.

My librettist and I decided we didn’t want anything too obtuse, too abstract.  If it’s going to be sung, why not have a reason to sing it?  It’s all about expression. Otherwise, if you just want lots of words, you could do a stage play.

Do you ever encounter any unusual difficulties as a woman composer?

SS: A woman composer probably has the same difficulties that a male composer experiences. But it’s harder to get produced. The grant making this possible is a three-year Music Alive grant, which comes from a collaboration between the League of American Orchestras and New Music USA. What a wonderful thing!

Manifestation 

The cast of characters for The Book Collector includes soprano Angela Mortellaro, who plays Anna von Schott, the daughter of the Baron. Baritone Andrew Garland also returns to the Schuster stage to sing Anna’s book-obsessed father, Baron Otto von Schott. Tenor Franz Bierman makes his Dayton Opera debut as the Baron’s rival for possession of the mysterious book. All three also sing the demanding solo parts in the Carmina Burana to follow.

Leadership for this major undertaking includes Dayton Opera artistic director Thomas Bankston, Dayton Philharmonic artistic director and conductor Neal Gittleman, Dayton Opera chorus master Jeffrey Powell, Dayton Philharmonic Chorus director Hank Dahlman, Kettering Children’s Chorus artistic director Natalie Dehorn, and Dayton Ballet artistic director and choreographer Karen Russo Burke. Stage director Gary Briggle returns to Dayton Opera to direct the action, which flows from one work to the other.

Dayton City Paper sat down with stage director Gary Briggle, as well.

Can you tell our readers a bit of what to expect?

Gary Briggle: It’s an unparalleled collaboration and the world premiere of a companion piece to Carmina Burana—a one-act opera, The Book Collector. It’s based on a kernel of historical fact, the discovery of the Carmina Burana poetry in 1803 in a Bavarian monastery. In the one-act opera, this becomes a Gothic murder mystery!

The Carmina Burana poems are actually the work of many people, and as a whole, they extol the virtues of wine, women and song. This new Carmina Burana features the same principal singers as The Book Collector. The Dayton Ballet will amplify the action.

This sounds great!

GB: It’s an epic event, and one of a kind. In addition to the Dayton Ballet, it features an 80-voice chorus and an 85-piece orchestra.

How did you begin working with Stella Sung? Did you know her previously?

GB: Thanks to Neal Gittleman and Thomas Bankston, Stella and I met at a workshop last summer to begin testing the waters for our collaboration.

How do you think the audience will react to this remarkable project?

GB: My sense is that very few people realize that Carmina Burana already has a dramatic narrative, so I think that the inclusion of a very distinct narrative is going to add a colorful and very compelling dimension to the work. For Dayton audiences, this world premiere is a real feather in the cap of the artistic community, and I really can’t wait to share it with the greater community.

About Carmina Burana

The dramatic text to Carmina Burana dates mainly from the 11th and 12th centuries, yet composer Carl Orff’s vibrant, energetic setting of 1935–1936 is unquestionably 20th century in feel. The 24 poems set by Orff, written by students and clergy in medieval Latin, Provencal French and middle high German, are by turns bawdy, irreverent and satirical, yet they seek serious answers. “O Fortuna,” which opens and closes the work, is addressed to the mythical Roman goddess of luck and fate. Will Fortune be kind? Will she be fickle? People and their worries apparently have not changed all that much in 900 or so years. Well-known even to listeners who have never darkened a concert hall, “O Fortuna” is the most famous segment of Orff’s enduringly popular work because of its use in a number of film scores. The best known of these is probably “Excalibur,” but it has also been borrowed for television shows and commercials, and quoted by numerous musical groups and performers including Michael Jackson, Ozzy Osbourne and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Television personalities as disparate as Rachael Maddow, Sean Hannity and Howard Stern have also made use of it in one form or another.
Increasingly performed since its debut, Orff’s scenic cantata explores the fickleness of fortune and wealth, the passing nature of life, the joys of spring and the pleasures (and perils) of drinking, gluttony, gambling and lust. Set to Orff’s infectiously rhythmic, pulsing music for soloists, double choir, children’s choir and large orchestra with extra instruments, the preoccupations of medieval writers spring once again to vivid life as the wheel of fortune continues in its inexorable turning.

Dayton Performing Arts Alliance presents The Book Collector and Carmina Burana at 8 p.m. Friday, May 20 and at 3 p.m. Sunday, May 22 at the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. in Dayton. Tickets are $38-$94, with senior, student and military discounts available, including $15 student rush tickets the day of the performance. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit daytonperformingarts.org or ticketcenterstage.com or call 937.228.3630. 
Eric Street is Professor of Music at UD with a doctorate from Indiana University. His Carnegie Hall debut led to performances in 36 countries on six continents. An opera lover, he’s taught Opera History and accompanied over two-dozen singers from the Metropolitan and NYC Opera. Reach him at EricStreet@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Eric Street is Professor of Music at UD with a doctorate from Indiana University. His Carnegie Hall debut led to performances in 36 countries on six continents. An opera lover, he’s taught Opera History and accompanied over two-dozen singers from the Metropolitan and NYC Opera. Reach him at EricStreet@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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