When it comes to opera companies, you are what you perform. The works you produce tell the audience everything it needs to know about what you value in opera and where you see the art form heading. In that respect, Eastman Opera Theatre has made its focus clear with its recent programming: Francis Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites" in 2014; Philip Glass's "Hydrogen Jukebox" in 2015; last year's searing production of Benjamin Britten's "The Turn of the Screw," to name a few.
The prevalence of 20th century works reveals a willingness to take risks that is uncommon among student ensembles, many of whom are perfectly comfortable treading the well-worn path of Mozart, Puccini, and others, seemingly without deviation.
The latest Eastman Opera endeavor is yet another bold move forward, this time into 21st century opera, with a spotlight on the work of composer Jake Heggie. A set of two productions featuring three different casts will be performed over two weekends, from February 2 through 12 at the Eastman School of Music's intimate Opera Studio. Eastman Opera Theatre's artistic director Steven Daigle calls the performances a "Jake Heggie festival," an "homage" to the composer and his commitment to writing vocal music.
In addition to the performance of Heggie's opera "Out of Darkness" – a collaboration with Eastman alumnus and librettist Gene Scheer that premiered in Seattle last May – Daigle and company will present a program entitled "Into the Fire." That features the complete song cycle "Camille Claudel: Into the Fire" (also co-written by Scheer) alongside excerpts from Heggie's song cycles "The Deepest Desire," "Here and Gone," and "From the Book of Nightmares."
Curated by Heggie himself, the staged song cycles represent an evolution in how the composer's works are presented to audiences. At first, director Stephen Carr found it challenging to incorporate all four song cycles in one evening, and even considered using a single overarching narrative. Carr's breakthrough came from Heggie's revelation that the song cycles are all "filled with a yearning for connection and identification – that essential loneliness that each of us can feel – and how we rail against it or seek to find some kind of resolution or redemption."
"A song cycle is its own beautiful, self-contained art form," Carr says, "and Jake's writing is so deeply rooted in storytelling. I realized that my job was simply to create a physical language that did justice to each piece, to explore the thematic threads that run through the pieces, and to help the singers find the heart of each song cycle."
This new, dramatically heightened context is especially noticeable in the Claudel song cycle. "I love that Stephen Carr had the idea of using six [mezzo-sopranos] for the song cycle about Camille Claudel," Heggie says. "Of course, it was written to be performed by one soloist – but with the staging and the six mezzos, we get a sense of a woman with many different sides and perspectives, and a more complex identity for her emerges."
From Scheer's vantage point, "Into the Fire" is about addressing marginalization. "The story of Camille is a story of passion, profound frustration, and unrealized hopes," Scheer says. "It is also the story of a truly great artist whose voice was silenced. Using music to give her a voice seemed like something that was long overdue and a wonderful way to allow her to express the emotional reality that she endured."
This theme of suppressed souls goes hand-in-hand with "Out of Darkness," a two-act opera (directed here by Daigle) that shines a light on two survivors of the Holocaust, Krystyna Zywulska and Gad Beck, whose fight against extreme oppression is too easily overlooked.
"I feel it is important to give voice to people no longer with us who have a big story to tell," Heggie says. "Sometimes these are very famous people, but more often they have been forgotten by history. Through music and drama, we can share their journey and let them live again for that moment – and hope the example of their life, work, and journey will resonate anew."
The importance that the venue, the Annex in the Opera Studio, will play in the telling of these stories should not be overlooked, either. "The intimacy of the Opera Studio is an ideal space for bringing smaller chamber works like these to life," Carr says. "One of the great gifts that we can offer our students at Eastman is the experience of performing in a space as magnificently huge as Kodak Hall and also as intensely up-close-and-personal as the Opera Studio."
In addition to its immediacy, the Opera Studio gives the singers the opportunity to perform "without a net," so to speak. "From an educational standpoint, it's a great space for students to work on their technique –acting, singing – mainly because you can't hide any insecurities in the space, so it's a very intimate environment," Daigle says.
The collaboration of Heggie and Scheer is an active one. The duo just witnessed the world premiere of their latest collaboration, the Frank Capra movie-turned-opera "It's a Wonderful Life" at Houston Grand Opera in December. Eastman Opera Theatre's mounting of both "Out of Darkness" and "Camille Claudel: Into the Fire" provides Rochester audiences the rare opportunity to see a quasi-retrospective of one of the most relevant creative teams in opera today.
Scheer puts it this way: "Both Jake and I are storytellers at heart. Our point of departure is the same: How can we use music to tell this story?"