Program notes by Lara Pellegrinelli
A shadowy bedroom with cracked, distressed walls. A string quartet seated on the stage, bowing delicate figures. An unnamed woman on the verge of discovery; her companions a man, who attempts to enforce his own version of reality, and a mythical being, who helps her uncover a gateway to other worlds. Hannah Lash’s opera Desire is spare in its physical and musical conception, but emotionally expansive, revealing boundless private interiors.
“The idea of allowing an opera to be very intimate, very internal, and not necessarily about spectacle is very beautiful to me,” says Lash. “I love when something is suggested rather than made explicit.”
Desire is fueled by suggestion. The arc of the plot is barely a story, as Lash herself would say. A woman awakens in the night beside her lover. She rises to find herself in a garden, where she is surprised to see that she is not alone. With the aid of a mysterious character – we might think of him as a muse, or even her echo – she unearths natural wonders and brings the space into blossom. But when she returns to the room to tell her lover, he does not believe her. Was the experience just an illusion, a wishful fever dream? When she attempts to show him the garden, it crumbles before her eyes. She must return and restore it on her own.
Desire is brimming with attraction, and yet the magnetic forces at play are not those of a romantic triangle. Rather, the piece is a metaphor for the creative process, dispelling illusions of what it means to encounter inspiration and overcome self-doubt. The departure to the garden mirrors the way a woman might slip into her imaginative life, wrestling with the pull of the domestic sphere despite her wishes to pursue her own artistic vision. The message is ultimately one of empowerment and self-reliance.
Although Desire’s themes clearly place it in a long and distinguished lineage of feminist works descended from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, it is unusual material for opera. The genre is still dominated by male composers and perspectives; grand productions of 19th-century fare continue to loom large at prevailing institutions. Perhaps it is unsurprising then that Lash has sought her inspiration elsewhere. She describes her influences as vocal works that tend towards the dramatic, but are not explicitly theatrical.
Historically, they lie at opposite ends of opera’s evolution. On the one hand, Lash admires works from the dawn of the art form: Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and L’incoronazione di Poppea, as well as the oratorios of Giacomo Carissimi and Heinrich Schütz. In addition to their extraordinary focus, she says the music and story in these works “come together in such a way that neither feels as though it is embellishing the other one.”
On the other hand, Lash also reveres early modern opera, including Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1893), based on Maeterlinck’s symbolist play about a love triangle and evoking dream states through music; Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (1918), a psychological drama about the secrets of the soul; and Leoš Janáček’s From the House of the Dead (1930), an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s autobiographical novel about his time in a Siberian prison camp, a setting conducive to exploring remorse, empathy, and forgiveness. In all of them, the characters’ inner lives take precedence over external drama.
In terms of her contemporaries, Lash belongs to a generation of composers in their 30s and 40s refashioning an unwieldy genre into agile chamber pieces, Missy Mazzoli, David T. Little, Du Yun, and Ellen Reid central among them. Librettist Royce Vavrek, a highly sought after partner in these circles, bears mentioning as a creative force in his own right.
An upsurge in new works has been enabled by opportunities to create them, through workshops and commissioning grants, as well as a rise in small, experimental opera companies and festivals. But opera’s contemporary appeal to composers likely goes beyond a need to update the form. It may very well be driven by a more fundamental impulse to tell stories, which has manifested itself across creative arenas: we see it in the New New Journalism; the rise of memoir as a formidable genre; a second golden age of radio and its extension through podcasting; a renaissance in television dramas through their serialization on streaming services; and, perhaps, most importantly, the ways in which social media has allowed us to perform our own stories while consuming those of others. We feel compelled to tell them and share them. After all, we live in an age of ubiquitous self-documentation.
While Lash has been swept up in this wave, she has positioned herself in opposition to it. “It’s not about stories for me,” she says. “My operas don’t tend to be narratives. In that way, I feel that I’m a bit of a rebel in my generation—that I don’t fit in. I’m constantly trying to stand firm in a current that’s rushing in a direction I’m not compelled to go in.”
If Desire can be considered an anti-narrative, its characters are vessels for larger themes and ideas as in Debussy’s symbolist work that Lash so admires. In that sense, Desire may also belong to countercurrents in recent literature through “autofiction,” first-person narratives by authors such as Karl Ove Knausgaard, Sheila Heti, and Ben Lerner that appear to be fiction, but are really autobiographical, blurring the lines between author and character. Writer Rachel Cusk, of the critically acclaimed Outline trilogy, goes so far as to assert that character no longer exists. Viewing human experience laterally, she insists that what we perceive as subtleties of self are never truly individualistic, but traits we share. Once we dispel the myth of our own uniqueness – and our flaws that provide the roots of conflict – traditional conceptions of dramatic form collapse.
Desire does not invoke the personal in its own nevertheless subjective construction. And Lash, who says the work is based on her own life, has declined to speak in specifics about its autobiographical aspects. She argues that Desire is more meaningful in abstraction, which lends the piece greater universality.
For example, the man, a baritone, the most common male voice type, is prototypical for his gender. He speaks in an everyday kind of language, and his vocal lines, which are deliberate and limited in range, follow suit. He embodies the expectations faced by our female protagonist through his insistent practicality. In contrast, the muse, a countertenor, an unusual, otherworldly voice type that upsets gender binaries, soars above her, his clarion pitches referencing ancient musical modalities. He speaks in more poetic language, representing the freedom to let your imagination run wild. The woman is any of us who longs to flex her creative muscles while the world presses in.
Lash’s interest in this subject matter began long before her commission from Miller Theatre. A garden and its destruction were the central metaphor of her earlier opera Blood Rose (2010), which also featured the performers for whom she has written Desire: contralto Kirsten Sollek and the JACK Quartet. It premiered at the Park Avenue Christian Church, and was also performed at VOX, New York City Opera’s former contemporary opera lab, but Lash has since withdrawn the score from publication. A product of her late 20s, Blood Rose reflected a compositional process that was still evolving. “It was a piece that I absolutely felt had to be written,” she says. “It gushed out of me. And I wasn’t done with this idea.”
Since then Lash has composed three further operas: Violations (2012), Stoned Prince (2013), and Beowulf (2015). When Miller Theatre presented her Composer Portrait in spring of 2016, Lash raised the possibility of creating a new operatic work with executive director Melissa Smey, who had long admired her music. Desire would become the second commission in Miller Theatre’s new Chamber Opera Commissioning Initiative, following Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up (2018).
“Through Hannah’s dedication to operatic form, she is not only contributing to the revival of contemporary American opera, but to its reinvention for audiences today,” says Smey, “The way she has created engaging vocal works in a theatrical context is unique in today’s new music scene. I’m proud to have the opportunity to support her in this way.”
Although many composers benefit from the creative tension with a librettist, this was Lash’s story, and she felt strongly about writing the text herself. The words are hers and hers alone. Veteran dramaturg Cori Ellison served as a second set of eyes and ears, helping Lash shape her vision in the clearest and most authentic way possible, much like a producer would. “The whole idea of an opera,” says Ellison, “is that you have a story that wants to sing. You want to ensure that there are moments for lyrical expansion. There’s so much color in this story that I encouraged Hannah to take passages and expand them, to sit with an emotion and dig deeper into that feeling.”
Although Desire centers on the woman performed by Kirsten Sollek, who gives its themes a recognizable face, the piece serves equally as a vehicle for JACK. “I wanted to give them as much of the dramatic arc as the singers,” says Lash.
Her relationship with the quartet has been long and fruitful. She and the original members belonged to the same undergraduate cohort at the Eastman School of Music. Composition students were required to wrangle their own performers, and a group of string players emerged, who were consistently interested in playing new music. They performed Lash’s work from the get-go. Earlier this year JACK released Filigree: Music of Hannah Lash (New Focus Recordings); the title composition, Filigree in Textile, was part of Lash’s Composer Portrait, in which she joins the string quartet on harp.
It is no wonder then that she would entrust Desire’s musical heartbeat to JACK, empowering the quartet to offer insight into what the characters are feeling rather than what is merely said or seen on the stage. “It’s a challenging piece,” says JACK’s violist and executive director, John Pickford Richards, “because we do not stop playing, even when the singers have a break. Our music is a current that is always bubbling underneath.” Lash’s string writing sings, stretching and breaking from tonal language. Dissonances do not resolve, but rather lean on each other purposefully, causing us to question our own sense of a musical center. We enter the garden each time with a fresh shower of pizzicato, tones raining down like petals.
Another challenge of an opera that explores longing and self-doubt is rendering those emotions visible on the stage: the task of director Rachel Dickstein and a creative team that includes set designer Kristen Robinson, lighting designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, and costume designer Kate Fry.
“We started with the idea that this is not a literal space,” says Dickstein. “When we first see the woman and her partner in the bedroom, it’s only a slice of a room. It is more of a psychological space, quite small and contained. Her ‘leaving’ to go to the garden is really just a transformation of the space into what her own thoughts allow her to dream about. We created a visual vocabulary for what her world of creativity would look like using light.”
Awakening, the woman discovers one space inside of the other. Rolling away rocks, she uncovers the tendrils of plants, vines that reach for the branches of weeping cherries, and redbuds. Luminous flowers bud and blossom. Golden sunlight dances on the water rippling with the fins of fish. Feathers break from her fingertips, releasing birds in flight. She gives the garden life with her hands, her song bursting forth: “Shards of light broken into the pulse of a thousand living things, fleeting fragrance born of rapture, a thousand leaves unfurl.” If only her liberation could be made permanent and unconditional.
“This is not an untroubled prospect,” Lash warns us. “It cannot be tied up in a bow. In the final scene, as the woman builds a wall around her garden so that neither of the men can get in, we realize that they’re watching her and will not be built out permanently. So the premise of the opera in some sense is tragic. It is a mission that will fail, and yet it is a mission that also needs to be addressed over and over again.”
Lara Pellegrinelli is a scholar and a journalist, who contributes to NPR and The New York Times. She teaches at The New School and Bard’s Microcollege at Brooklyn Public Library.
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