writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition


Maryland Opera Studio
Kay Theatre, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center
University of Maryland
College Park, Maryland
Thursday, May 6, 2004

by George Jackson
copyright 2004 by George Jackson
published 10 May 2004

New operas are rare events compared to new ballets or modern dance works, particularly new operas that include a choreographer on the production team. The world premier of Clara by the Maryland Opera Studio used choreographer Virginia Freeman to oversee movement for a cast of 11 characters in 19th Century costumes on a stage equipped with a turntable.

Many strands interweave in Clara, a chamber opera about the life of pianist and composer Clara Wieck Schumann. There is Kathleen Cahill's libretto that tries to show Clara as daughter, lover, wife and mother as well as musician—in other words, Clara as woman. Robert Convery's music flows in two streams. One is contemporary, and the other alludes to and incorporates 19th Century compositions by Clara and Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. There are three types of instruments—orchestral, solo piano and the human voice.

Freeman and director Leon Major kept the stage action clear, as clear as conductor JoAnn Kulesza kept the music. The multiple strands did not become a Gordian knot. They might have without a careful performance. The libretto is a booby trap. Aiming to explore all aspects of Clara, it tells her story backwards. She's on her deathbed as the curtain goes up and she recalls more recent events in her life first, finally getting to her youth only towards the end, before her last breath and the curtain's descent (there are no intermissions in the opera's 90 minutes duration). Fewer than half of the characters' lines were comprehensible and, without a projected script of what they were saying and thinking, stance and movement had to come to the aid of the drama. Major and Freeman did not overload the story with "business". What characters did and the ways in which they moved suggested their natures succinctly. For example, one of the Schumann sons sits while the other characters, standing or stepping about, argue. He is bent over one of his shoes, and keeps tying and retying his shoelace.Only later do we learn that he is retarded.

Use of the revolving stage as a bridge from scene to scene indicated the passage of time. Characters who had died in the course of events, the "ghosts", tended to stand on the non-revolving sidelines, removed from the flow of events. Yet, a little like a Greek chorus, they responded to situations or to the music with a snatch of a waltz, a bit of a promenade or a brisk exit.

Convery was brave to quote Brahms and Robert Schumann's compositions, inviting comparison with his own. His lyrical and declamatory passages for the voices arch effectively over orchestral turbulence that's bright in a post-Stravinsky way. Why, though, didn't he give us more Clara Schumann quotes rather than just allude to her music?

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 17
May 10, 2004

© 2004 George Jackson




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last updated on April 19, 2004