A Female Composer Makes History With ‘Orlando’ in Vienna

A Female Composer Makes History With ‘Orlando’ in Vienna

To richen the instrumental textures, the second violins have been tuned barely a semitone lower than the other performers, and the traditional orchestra shares space with musicians playing electronic instruments and a library of prerecorded samples — some recordings of instruments, some purely electronic sounds, and some field recordings, like the bird song that opens the opera.

Snatches of musical allusions, quotations and fake quotations — like straight-tone choral singing with an English Renaissance flavor; a synthesizer whose incessant noodling during scene transitions sounds like a harpsichord on Dexedrine; and an onstage rock band that plays a funk song with Orlando during a 1960s sequence — vanish almost as soon as they appear.

The conductor, Matthias Pintscher, remarked on the score’s “ardent search for the inside life of sound.”

“Even where there is not a lot of activity,” he added, “there is an inner desire for change.”

The opera bursts with what Sontag, in “Notes on Camp,” calls the “love for human nature” of the camp sensibility, its “little triumphs and awkward intensities.” This “good taste of bad taste,” an ethos of enjoyment, of high and low and sometimes grotesque, is fundamental to the opera, which plays out over 19 scenes, each containing a mix of choral music, solos and dialogue. Between scenes, the curtain bears a projection of a spinning dreidel, evoking Ms. Neuwirth’s Jewish heritage and the games of chance inherent in every life — especially one, like Orlando’s, stretching over more than 300 years.

The title role is sung by Kate Lindsey, who, like other mezzo-sopranos known for trouser roles, has extensive experience playing multiple genders onstage. Her notable parts at the Metropolitan Opera have included Hänsel in Humperdinck’s “Hänsel und Gretel,” and in February she takes on Nerone — the Roman emperor Nero — in Handel’s “Agrippina.”

In “Orlando,” her vocal part includes distorted Baroque vocalizations, with extensive ornamentation. Ms. Neuwirth’s score, intent on departing from opera’s rules about proper technique, support and vibrato, gives precise instructions about quality of sound, often calling for breathy straight tone, belting and other unconventional operatic approaches. For Ms. Lindsey, learning it felt like “climbing Mount Everest”: “There’s no magic way to do it except work.”

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