Old genre, new work
It’s dissonant. It’s brash. It’s atonal.
Those are the stereotypes.
Now, listen to Ben Moore, composer of “Enemies, A Love Story,” the opera based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel that receives its world premiere Feb. 20-22 by Palm Beach Opera.
“I really search for melodic material that people can hold on to. I really love memorable tunes and motifs, so I’ve woven a lot of those through it. It’s a combination because some of the connective material has a modernist feel to it,” he said during an interview at the opera’s production studio in West Palm Beach.
The melodic material comes naturally for Mr. Moore, age 55.
“You know, I grew up so steeped in opera. Both of my parents were amateur opera singers, and my father ran the opera company in Utica, N.Y., and I was in the children’s choruses of all these operas, like ‘Carmen,’ ‘Boheme,’ ‘Tosca.’ I remember seeing my mom playing Suzuki in ‘Butterfly.’ I was about 4, so it’s a long history like that.”
Melodic is not a word that comes to mind in hearing the works of other contemporary composers — think of John
Adams and Philip
“I try to evoke all kinds of styles of music here. For the Jewish/Yiddish background, there are hints of those modalities but I am careful to balance that with my own language and style,” Mr. Moore said. “The best music, looking back, comes from synthesis. You think about Gershwin, with jazz and blues, he kind of synthesized that into a classical style. I’m also synthesizing American musical theater elements and 19th century operatic materials.”
The relationship between characters Herman Broder and his wife, Yadwiga, grew from tragedy.
Poor Herman’s life is complicated. He tells Yadwiga he’s traveling for work then heads off to live a second life with Masha, who shares a home in another New York borough with her mother.
Sounds complicated, right?
Things become more complex for Herman when his first wife, Tamara, shows up in New York. Turns out, she survived the war even as their children died.
The music reflects that angst.
“The central character is so tortured and complicated, and not everyone loves Herman Broder because he ends up with three wives,” Mr. Moore said. “I feel for him particularly because anyone who is messed up in their life, and we all have made a mess of things, and this man has made a royal mess of things, and he’s been so traumatized that he can’t figure out how to get out of it.”
“The audience can be saying just do this, just do that, and he can’t work it out. It’s a little bit like Hamlet in that way. He just goes through this story and just makes things worse for himself and you want to shake him. I identify with that guy and I cut him a lot of slack for that,” Mr. Moore said.
The music also defines the characters.
“Tamara has much darker music than the other women. Yadwiga has very sweet, heart-on-your sleeve music. For Masha, it’s compulsive, it’s passionate,” he said, adding, “That’s part of the job of the composer, to find the music for the characters to push the story forward.”
“We are responsible to make sure the art form evolves. We foster not only the artistic talent but we are part of the machine that fuels new work,” said Daniel Biaggi, general director of Palm Beach Opera. “In order to work toward the survival of the art form itself it’s important to put emphasis on American works.”
This is Palm Beach Opera’s first attempt at mounting a premiere.
In 2013, the company performed a condensed version of “Enemies” as part of its One Opera in One Hour series at the Harriet Himmel Theater at City- Place in West Palm Beach and at Lighthouse ArtCenter in Tequesta. Mr. Biaggi had booked it after hearing a recording from workshop performances in Kentucky.
But on the other hand?
“Sometimes it is easier for a small company to do, easier for us to do it than for (New York’s Metropolitan Opera), or Houston,” he said. The production is expected to cost the company around $1.2 million; a usual production costs Palm Beach Opera about $700,000 or so to mount.
Singer spent his final years in Surf- side, a community just north of Miami. That is where he died in 1991.
“I think that’s why Palm Beach Opera is a good place for this premiere,” Mr. Moore said. “Not only the fact that Singer lived nearby, but the fact that this is such a New York story and Jewish people can relate to the story of refugees and immigrants in the country via New York.”
“We can serve all the different ranges of our audiences, not only those who like primarily French and Italian repertoire,” Mr. Biaggi said. “This helps us bring in new relationships. It just opens an entirely different dialogue with other community organizations, whether it be financial institutions or other organizations,” including the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County and the Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival.
“It broadens our impact and our ways to have conversations,” Mr. Biaggi said.
“We’ve got a great cast. They’re so wonderful. It’s always interesting when a talented person takes your material and does something you might not expect and you can learn about it and have very pleasant surprises. They find things there you didn’t think existed and bring it to a new level, so that’s great,” Mr. Moore said.
The company was in the midst of rehearsals when he spoke, and Mr. Moore said he and librettist Nahma Sandrow still were refining the work.
“These pieces are never finished. You look at the history of opera and even after big premieres, composers kept tinkering with their work, or not even tinkering, revamping it,” he said. “I think that it’s important that you never feel like it’s completely set in stone so that it can live and grow. … It makes it more adventurous this way.”
For Mr. Biaggi, “Enemies, A Love Story” is an opportunity to build a national reputation for his company.
“This has drawn a lot of attention to Palm Beach nationally and internationally. We have general directors of other companies joining us, and reviewers, as well,” he said, citing critics from “Opera
America” and other publications.
The cast for this production includes Daniel Okulitch, Leann Sandel-Pantaleo, Caitlin Lynch, Danielle Pastin, Jennifer Roderer, Philip Horst and David Kravitz. Mr. Okulitch, a bass-baritone who portrays Herman, also created the role of Seth Brundle in Howard Shore’s opera, “The Fly.”
“We can get good talent to come to come to Palm Beach, and it makes our negotiating power stronger,” he said.
“You need to grow toward something. It was fascinating to see the change in the staff and the board. There is a sense of ownership. Everyone involved is in this business to make great art,” he said. “It is very unifying to be working on something that has never been done before.” ¦