By Michael Caruso
Come Thursday, Sept. 24, Philadelphia will become the center of the operatic world. Opera Philadelphia will open its Festival 2017 that evening in the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater with the world premiere of “Elizabeth Cree.” Then, for the next 11 afternoons and evenings, the Festival will perform four more operas and offer one meet-and-greet with its artist-in-residence.
Operas set to be performed are “Elizabeth Cree” Sept. 14-23; “The Magic Flute” in the Academy of Music Sept. 15-24; “War Stories” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Sept. 14-23; “The Wake World” Sept. 18-25 at the Barnes Museum; “The Marriage of Figaro” Sept. 23 on Independence Mall; and the chance to meet Festival artist Sandra Radvanosky Sept. 17 & 18 in the Perelman.
The mounting of “The Magic Flute,” with music by W.A. Mozart to a libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder, is unquestionably the Festival’s largest-scaled endeavor. David Charles Abell will conduct. Abell, who lived on Gowen Avenue in West Mt. Airy between the ages of 5 and 12, will not be the conductor for the other operas mentioned earlier.
“I went to Germantown Friends School from kindergarten through 6th grade,” Abell explained. “I loved it. The atmosphere there in the 1960s was very stimulating, and I identified with the Quaker sensibility. I remember being very proud of the philosophical insights I would share from time to time in Meeting. If I could hear now what I actually said at the time, it would probably be a source of embarrassment.”
Abell admitted that piano lessons, which began when he was 6, were not a success and didn’t last very long. “I was not interested in making my fingers ‘prance like ponies’ as my teacher demanded,” he acknowledged.
“At GFS I first took up the trumpet, which I love. It was loud and brassy, of course, and I had inherited my grandfather’s instrument. I played trumpet for a while until I was informed that the school’s orchestra needed violas more than trumpets. I had to learn a new technique and a new clef, since violas read in the alto clef.
“For my future career as a conductor, that switch of instruments was a blessing. Every conductor should have experience playing a string instrument. Symphony orchestras contain more strings than any other type of instrument, so conductors need to understand how they work. As a conductor, I pay a great deal of attention to musical phrasing.
“All my childhood musical experiences were ideal preparation for a career in conducting: church choir at Grace Church in Mt. Airy, which had an Anglican style choir of men and boys at the time; piano lessons; trumpet lessons; viola lessons; and school orchestra. Later, when my family moved to the Chicago area, I tried out all the other woodwind and brass instruments, acted, danced and performed in musicals. I even wrote a musical my senior year of high school.”
Abell remembered that he first became interested in conducting when he was 15. “The conductor of my high school orchestra got sick one day, and I was asked, ‘Can you conduct tonight’s concert?’ I bluffed my way through it somehow, and that gave me the bug for conducting. It was the most wonderful feeling in the world, and I liked how it combined performing and teaching.”
Abell studied with the legendary Nadia Boulanger in France when the great pedagogue was in her 90s. She had studied with Faure and taught, among others, Copland and Bernstein. “Her teaching was rigorous, with emphasis on training the ear. She taught me to listen in a deeper way than I ever had before.”
Having worked with many opera companies throughout the world, Abell has conducted Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni” but never “The Magic Flute.” To do so has “been a dream of mine for many years. Parts of it are pure comedy, and it was written to be performed with spoken dialogue alternating with arias and ensembles. Having conducted many musicals, I hope to bring a theatrical sensibility to the piece. It also contains serious elements, and the music is sublime.
“Any opera is challenging for the conductor since he or she has to coordinate the musicians in the pit with singers onstage. You have to be a bit of a mind reader to conduct opera, and you also have to be able to predict what’s likely to happen a few seconds in the future.”
The Festival’s most anticipated production is that to be given “Elizabeth Cree,” with music by Kevin Puts to a libretto by Mark Campbell. This will be the third collaboration by the two. Their first resulted in the Pulitzer Prize winning “Silent Night,” which Opera Philadelphia jointly commissioned with the Minnesota Opera and which it presented at the Academy of Music in February of 2013. The 45-year-old Puts is a member of the faculty of Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory of Music of Johns Hopkins University, my alma mater.
“The novel by Peter Ackroyd, on which the opera is based, drew me in immediately,” Puts explained. “It begins with the macabre scene of Elizabeth Cree’s hanging and quickly jumps back in time to a scene in which she is on trial for the murder of her husband. She is grandiose and sarcastic on the stand, playing to the crowd. And then we learn of her horrid upbringing, her dreams of the music hall and its wonders.
“She is a fascinating character, and the telling of her story is achieved in a fascinating manner in both the novel and in Mark Campbell’s libretto. In general, I’m interested in narrative movement and pace in an opera. I like the cinematic quality of jumping from place to place, from past to present and back again and challenging the audience to put the pieces together.”
Puts explained that he did not make an effort to incorporate the popular and classical music styles of 19th century England in his score, which is through composed without breaks between the “numbers.”
“My style is pretty varied,” he said, “and it is essentially rooted in tonality, although I never think functionally. So I guess my approach to tonality is somewhat atonal. The tonal center, in most cases, is always shifting. There are moments of bitonality, the feeling of being in two keys at once, while certain other numbers are pretty strictly tonal. There are also scenes that feature a sort of minimalist-flavored ‘pulsed modality,’ for example the scenes at the police station, in which Inspector Kildare is trying to piece things together. None of this is dogmatic for me. I react musically to the story as need without much premeditation.”
Regarding working with Campbell again, Puts said, “We are both after clarity, pace, economy, and expressive power. Sometimes this requires much rewriting, scrapping, rewriting again. After three operas, we have a pretty good idea of what to expect from each other, and I look forward to many more projects with Mark.”