How do art and moral responsibility intersect? Or do they?
That’s the endlessly intriguing debate enacted in the new chamber opera After Life, whose world premier was staged on a Monday in early May in a small-ish recital hall at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall. Two weeks later, After Life played to a sell-out crowd in San Francisco’s Temple El-Manuel.
After Life, complicated by the two-word interpretation of the title implying hungering for life, rather than the dreary afterlife, is a set piece for discussion of the Holocaust. And why not? Music of Remembrance commissioned the opera from rising-star composer Tom Cipullo, whose Glory Denied made Opera News’ top 2014 list. The 17-year-old Seattle-based organization’s mission is to keep the music of the Holocaust alive.
Directed by Erich Parce, the one act, 58-minute chamber opera comes fully alive with Bellingham-born poet David Mason’s elegant libretto and the three singers’ vigorously rendered portrayals of mid-century giants: “rose-is-a-rose-is-a rose” writer Gertrude Stein and short, yet bigger-than-life artist Pablo Picasso. The third character is a nameless teen-aged orphan, who at one time, sold a rose to Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas. She did not survive the Holocaust, though the artists did, and therein lies the drama.
The conversation occurs in a post-Holocaust and after-life conversation between Picasso (sung by the infinitely versatile baritone Robert Orth) and Stein (mezzo Catherine Cook). Cook brilliantly portrays a dowdy, self-involved and insistent writer/cutting-edge public figure.
“Genius: Did somebody say my name?” Stein sings at the beginning of the piece. And later, “Have they learned to read me?”
She thrusts a copy of Time magazine, her face on its cover, into Picasso’s face. And Picasso, unmoved and recalcitrant — above it all — justifies his art and egomaniacal behavior by singing, “I was an artist of war,” referencing “Guernica,” among other pieces. Wearing his iconic striped t-shirt, he sings, impressed with his masculinity, chest out, that he is “After life, after love. I bathed in the sun. … A bull and a woman can make a new world. El toro! El rey!”
The two artists confront each other with searing questions of why and how each survived in Nazi-occupied France. Stein was a Jew and moved to the French countryside and occasionally edited Nazi sympathizer work. Picasso, though he and his art were considered “degenerate” by the Nazi regime, continued to paint prolifically. “Art is for life,” they sing in duet.
In the last 15 minutes of their argument over mortality and morality — “Who will remember us?” is their major concern — an orphaned girl (nuanced-voiced soprano Ava Pine) who perished namelessly in the war, joins in the discussion, arriving almost mystically from out of the blue. She walks down the aisle, involving the audience. Until she reaches the stage.
It is she who shows us the folly of Stein and Picasso’s bombastic and inflated egos. “I don’t remember myself,” she sings in her clear, poignant, almost girlish soprano. “Why did I die?”
The score calls for flute, violin, piano, cello and clarinet, played here by a chamber ensemble led by Seattle Symphony’s youthful associate conductor Stilian Kirov. Despite its weighty themes, the light-touch, clever music kept the opera from sinking into heavy-handedness, avoiding yet another gloomy reminder of the unforgivable time.
One quibble: Although the sparse and spare scenery, conjuring up a ‘40s-era artist’s garret, worked, it was uninteresting visually; you could see where the budget was limited. The props, oddly, including a 1945 first edition of Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, were available for purchase. Suggested donation: $40.
Aside from subtitles getting bollixed up for a short period of time – not a big deal since the piece was sung in English — the opera was inventive, pitch-perfect, thought-provoking and refreshing. It proved a sweet relief from the Don Giovannis and Carmens that I’ve seen lately. We were lucky to have it make its impressive debut in the Northwest.