Making Room for Melismatic Embroidery
by Miles Forrester and Michael Zarathus-Cook | March 9, 2022
Mark Adamo by Daniel Welch
A busy year for the celebrated composer and librettist
Composer and librettist, Mark Adamo, writes as if he was an actor: he finds the character and emotion of the music, when he crafts his pieces, by experiencing them himself. It’s why he still tears up when he hears the recording by Houston’s River Oaks Chamber Orchestra of his new cello concerto titled Last Year. That piece is an interpellation of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, projected through the prism of the climate crisis. Composing Last Year was a process of becoming conscious of a disaster many of us instinctually ignore. This method is also why he’s an excellent interview subject: he moves intuitively between first and second person when he’s telling a story, pulling the listener into his world of erudition, humour, and “muscular empathy.” His new opera, The Lord of Cries—written in collaboration with his composer-husband, Pulitzer-winner John Corigliano—uses Euripides’ The Bacchae, by way of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, to find the tragedy and empathy in the repressive drives still endemic in our culture now. Adamo takes us on a ride through the history and future of opera—and even the origin of Santa.
sM | Technology and performance appear more enmeshed than ever. As an artist and aesthete, what is lost and what is gained?
MA - What’s gained is flexibility and intimacy—in so far as the most effective multimedia productions tend to happen in smaller houses. You can cast a singer whose voice does not need to be acoustically organized in such a way that she can fill, unamplified, a 3,000–seat house and soar over a Strauss orchestra. If she has the right sound and colour—and is the right actress—she can make just enough sound to make it beautiful and expressive, the technology can take that and run with it.
There’s a risk that the better the technology, the more miniature the performer seems. It’s possible for technology to take so much of the expressive burden—and we’re all living on screens, we are “screen creatures”—the question that arises is: “Why are we going to the theater to begin with?” If we want the live experience simply to recreate the brilliant streaming experience, then why bother? The question is not so new. This has been true—particularly in opera—since the turn of the last century. Once there was the camera, once there was the microphone and the phonograph, opera was dethroned as the largest acoustic experience—the loudest acoustic experience you could have. If you went to a production of Aida, the equivalent would be seeing Dune.
Lord of the Cries - Courtesy of the Artist
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MA - I think it’s telling that the very first silent films actually took operatic subjects. There was a King Vidor La Bohème! The ability of spectacle was shifting to the camera, shifting to the microphone. As we know from a rock concert, one person at a guitar and a drum set can drown out the sound of a [Boeing] 757. So what then? If we are then going to see people playing this box with some strings on it, and other people behind them playing boxes with strings on it: Why? How’s that better than the recording? What need do we have for that, that is not being fulfilled by all of our glittering toys?
We used a little technology in The Lord of Cries, very little treating the voices, to give the impression that the divine figures were leaving the human realm and were now becoming unearthly. A very little echo, but not a whole lot—that I completely support. You know, that sense that the technology is giving you a different kind of experience than the acoustic version. But we need to be aware of the risk of the tail wagging the dog.