Saturday, June 13, 2015

Opera Preview: James Robinson on the many layers of "Emmeline"

James Robinson
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Opera Theatre's fourth production of the season is the local premiere of Tobias Picker's 1996 "Emmeline," which has a book by poet J.D. McClatchy, based on the novel of the same name by Judith Rossner. I spoke with stage director James Robinson about the piece via email this week.

Chuck Lavazzi: "Emmeline" is the story of a young textile mill worker who is seduced by her employer's son-in-law, gets pregnant, and is forced to give up the baby. Two decades later she unwittingly meets and marries the young man who turns out to be her son. That kernel of story, it seems to me, resonates on both a deep psychological level with its overtones of Oedipus as well as on a political and social level. What aspects of the opera do you find most compelling and why?

James Robinson: I've always been drawn to stories about "the other" in a society. "Emmeline" is certainly about someone who through no fault of her own has become a pariah, an outcast. It's certainly a deeply psychological story that has strong ties to "Oedipus," but it's also the tale of a woman who is really looking and longing to be loved. Obviously, she is taken advantage of by McGuire, the employer's son-in-law who not just takes advantage of her and, to be blunt, he rapes her. McGuire knows that young Emmeline, who has just come to work in the mills, is lonely and he suggests that he can become a father figure to her (knowing that she desperately misses her father and family). What's masterful about the way McClatchy and Picker have approached this situation is that the audience is almost fooled into believing this is a traditional romantic situation — the text is like a love duet and the music is achingly romantic. Then you have to say, "Wait a minute, she's 14 and he's at least twice her age!" Of course, when she finally falls in love with Matthew we again are hoping that she finds true love. Again, it turns out very badly and both librettist and composer know how to deliver a real punch in the gut. So I think these elements are really interesting. In a sense, "Emmeline" with its taut libretto and stunning music is like an opera by Janacek. It follows that composer's masterworks like "Katya Kabanova" and "Jenufa".

I guess on another level, I love the fact that this is an American opera set in New England and it's rooted in a real time and place. Historically, the mills of Lowell, MA were fascinating in terms of the girls who were sent to work there and what it meant — both good and bad — to industry in the US. I also enjoy presenting operas that shed light on times and places that are not commonly familiar to most people.

Speaking of the music, in the New York Times review of the 1998 City Opera production, Bernard Holland (who liked the score quite a lot) wrote that the composer "has a true ear for lyrical run-on musical sentences. They ride gracefully and take interesting directions." I'm not entirely sure what he means by that. Now that you've spend so much time with the music, and you tell me what you think he was getting at there?

I would say that Picker has written some really wonderful lyrical passages that are not entirely predictable. "Emmeline" is a very tuneful score and the vocal writing plays off of a lot of solo writing in the orchestra. I would say it's one of the great strengths of the piece because you never really know where the lines are going. So in a sense it's very much like the way people speak or think — there's a great deal of spontaneity that keeps you wondering where things are heading. This as opposed to a more formulaic pattern of vocal writing.

It sounds like even though Picker studied with some aggressively "modernist" composers like Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt, he has personally gone back to a more tonal style of composition. Is this something you see happening frequently in the contemporary opera world?

Interestingly, I have come across many composers who worked with some hardcore modernists over the years but who have opted to compose in a more lyrical even tonal style. There is a rigorous element to Picker's music that certainly reflects some of his earlier compositions but I think this has less to do with atonality and more to do with rhythm. "Emmeline" is, in fact, an extremely tonal score but there are some extremely complex rhythmic patterns used throughout.

Yes, I think something similar is happening in the concert world as well. I've been hearing a lot of "new music" lately that seems to recognize that the war against tonality that the serialists started has been lost. That's a positive development in my book.

I've seen the same thing. I'm not sure it's a complete rejection of brutal atonality as many of these newer/younger composers are employing certain techniques but in a more personal way and with music rooted in tonality. There's also a lot of fusion of styles that I think is very interesting. You hear influences of jazz, rock and international music. The real pros know how to bring these things together to create their own voices.

Last question: "Emmeline" is, as you say, a layered and complex piece. What are you hoping audiences will take away from it, emotionally and/or intellectually?

I'm hoping the audiences for "Emmeline" will find it a riveting story with really gorgeous music (and terrific performances). True, it's a dark story but it's also quite a moving story that resonates on so many levels. Someone I know saw a dress rehearsal (and she's not a huge opera fan) and wrote me the most incredible note about how the opera touched her deeply on levels of love, religion, passion, taking advantage of children, etc. Is the story too dark? I don't think so. After all, we know pretty early on that Cio Cio San, Mimi and Tosca are not going to have an easy time of it.

"Emmeline" opens Sunday, June 14, and runs through June 27. For more information, visit the Opera Theatre web site.

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