Monday, November 6, 2017

Men on the Verge

Matthew Aucoin’s Crossing
BAM Next Wave Festival
Howard Gilman Opera House
October 5, 2017

The lightning rod of a community of fallen soldiers as consummate optimist
Photo credit: Gretjen Helene
Walt Whitman somehow always manages to remain pertinent. He comes up even when you least expect it. Not only did he make a prominent cameo in Ben Lerner’s last novel 10:04, for example, but a lost novel by the poet the himself also recently emerged from the archives and has had us abuzz again about this most American of wordsmiths. We just can’t stop talking about him. The prodigiously talented young composer Matthew Aucoin’s magisterial opera, Crossing, lends us yet another opportunity to reassess the omnipresence of this seemingly measureless American figure.

Aucoin draws on the omnivorous diaries Whitman kept during his volunteer years as a nurse in the Civil War and published under the title Memoranda During the War. In a stroke of genius, a figure found therein named John Wormley gets a fictionalized treatment; or rather he becomes a pivotal plot device in the opera. He is the one who gives the story its main thrust and its primary sense of drama.

The poet finds himself in a cold, dark wood, lost to himself
Photo credit: Gretjen Helene
The opera begins with an elderly, grey-bearded Whitman paraphrasing Dante in the throes of a midlife crisis: “In the middle of the journey of my life, / I found myself a self I didn’t know.” When the show opens most of the stage is walled off. Our hero is hedged in, blocked from life. He is surrounded by projected images of an unsettling dark forest scene consisting of the chiaroscuro shadows of gnarled leafless trees, animated by a jittery moving camera, which sets the tone for the poet’s Dantesque moment of existential doubt.

The man who would never be the same again
Photo credit: Steven Pisano
Much of what Aucoin has set out to dramatize is the effect that the war had on Whitman’s creative spirit. The standard narrative of his career casts the Civil War as a turning point. It’s not that he stopped writing in the aftermath, but he never wrote again with quite the same verve. It’s almost like a part of him died along with the country’s innocence. Which is maybe what makes the story told here, not only timeless, but utterly timely for the world we inhabit today, perhaps even more so today than in the pre-Trump era when it was written.

We open on an iconically bearded, avuncular Whitman who expresses his uncertainty about who he really is: “Known to the world as Everyman, / I did not know who I was.” He is no longer content embodying the persona he painstakingly constructed in his antebellum poetry, that of the Everyman who “contains multitudes.” The very foundation of his claim to fame, the core of his poetic and largely public identity, is in question.

What is it, then, between us?
Photo credit: Steven Pisano
“What is it, then, between us?” he ponders. A line from Crossing Brooklyn Ferry is the first big quote to make a cameo from Leaves of Grass. It provides a sort of thesis statement for the night. What is the nature of the boundaries and borders that separate us. What does it take to breach them? What is it about our shared humanity that unites us despite the illusion of autonomy that limits and distances us from one another, as individuals and as a nation?

At this point the partition that closed off much of the stage is removed, revealing the Civil War hospital where Whitman served as a nurse during the waning years of the conflict. He came to check on his wounded brother, which is what brought him there, he recounts, but he continues to stay and doesn’t know why. He must be looking for something, he muses.

The poet as designated caregiver
Photo credit: Gretjen Helene
His role at the hospital is an almost maternal. Whitman is not a trained medic but he is the sole designated caregiver. The opera is basically a portrait of this larger than life man. His most oversized characteristic is consummate optimism. He is always there to cheer the men up, especially when a particularly gloomy pessimistic adversary stumbles into the ward and is, quite literally, on a mission to lay everybody’s spirits low.

Enter John Wormley, a minor figure who makes a cameo appearance in Whitman’s wartime diaries and around which Aucoin has constructed a fictionalized drama and love story. As it turns out Wormley’s mission is even more insidious than merely raining on their already glum parade. He is a mole, a confederate soldier in disguise who wants to leak information about the camp hospital back to his rebel comrades.

Enter Wormley, the negative to Whitman's purely positive valence
Photo credit: Gretjen Helene
The tug of war between Whitman’s relentlessly positive outlook and Wormley’s dismally negative one continues over the next several tableau that constitute the body of the opera, until a relationship of some sort comes suddenly, and rather shockingly, to fruition, despite the sketchy outlines we are given. It is eventually also “consummated,” I suppose, in a scene that concludes with the two men fully clothed and spooning on one of the beds in the crowded group barracks.

From bedside to bedside we go
Photo credit: Richard Termine
The moment is the opera’s imagined climax of a scene that takes its cues from the striking poem entitled The Sleepers: “I go from bedside to bedside, I sleep close with the other sleepers each in turn, / I dream in my dream all the dreams of the other dreamers, / And I become the other dreamers.” Whitman’s uncanny aptitude for containing multitudes turns voyeuristic in a sexually suggestive kind of way. “I roll myself upon you as upon a bed, I resign myself to the dusk,” Whitman says at one point in the poem that Aucoin brings to life on the stage, bestowing upon his confused characters the fulfillment they crave, whether they acknowledge the craving or not.

Love in the time of war knows no boundaries
Photo credit: Gretjen Helene
Because the heightening of their intimacy only gets superficial treatment at best, we don’t quite believe Whitman, in an otherwise tender and moving moment, when he professes his love for the dying traitor, whom he cradles in his arms later in the opera: “Oh my son, / I never loved another / Till you.” The quintessential Whitmanesque sentiment of exalting the universal in the particular and vice versa is nevertheless clear. It is the sentiment we find upon the introduction of Wormley. Uncle Walt’s embrace of every man in his inclusive utterance: “I am with you,” sums up his beautiful gesture of friendship and acceptance. Dramatically, however, I was not particularly convinced that the emotional finale of the opera in this penultimate scene hits its mark, despite the fact that musically it was incredibly effective.

More intellectually than emotionally stirring is Wormley’s sudden Whitmanesque epiphany about the earth’s welcome and release of his marching feet when he felt that he was every soldier in the lead up to his passing in the arms of his lover. Having won out in the end, Whitman’s positive outlook seems to have sent the troubled young pessimist into a conniption fit of appreciation for life in all its minuscule nuances. It is a stunning moment in the score.

Wormley sees the Whitmanesque light in a beatific vision of his own
Photo credit: Gretjen Helene 
On every other count, however, it would seem that Wormley gets the least exciting writing both musically and otherwise to sing. In a subtle ploy used by the composer, once Wormley reveals his true identity (after posing as a Yankee soldier), his voice intentionally alters to reveal distinctively southern cadences. It is a minor detail in the grand scheme of the texture of the opera, which is why it hardly makes up for the fact that so much of the rest of Wormley’s role is otherwise relatively bland.

Tenor Alexander Lewis played John Wormley as a bedraggled soldier, a wounded vagrant with nothing to live for. Baritone Rod Gilfry leant his embodiment of Walt Whitman a wise world-weariness.

Freddie Stowers goes into a mystic trance
Photo credit: Steven Pisano
The greatest highlight musically and the most thrilling and inventive writing of the night went to Freddie Stowers, the fugitive slave who had fled to the north on foot in search of his freedom only to march back to the south as a soldier to fight for the freedom of others. The ineffably velvet-toned bass-baritone Davóne Tines sang the role, which was composed explicitly for him. His instrument is perfectly suited to the hybrid sounds that Aucoin wrote for Stowers.

In his one big aria, just before the Sleepers segment, Tines breaks into soaring story mode. He recounts a delirious vision he had when he escaped to the north and claims to have glimpsed in his fever dream the “future of humankind on the earth.” His otherworldly ecstasy has him singing in soulful southern spiritual cadences.

The herald arrives with a message of hope
Photo credit: Gretjen Helene
This is the kind of thing that I personally look for in a contemporary opera: the crossing of musical boundaries beyond traditional operatic vocal expression. Depending on the story being told, composers today have a whole universe of other traditions to draw upon in order to cross pollinate and fruitfully contaminate their scores. Stowers’ old-timey spiritual was one of these moments to savor.

In a world of male nurses and female messengers, soprano Jennifer Zetlan sang the golden bearer of good news – the token female role – with sunshine in her hair. At a particularly tense moment in the plot, Zetlan bounded into the hospital in a pastoral cotton dress with bright locks of buoyant brunette curls tousled on her head, fresh as a daisy, relatively speaking, as though she wandered out of an episode of Little House on the Prairie.

Not only does Zetlan provide our only glimpse of a world outside the misery of the war and the wasteland it leaves in its wake, but she is the only woman in an otherwise purely male, homosocial world. Her arrival ignites Wormley’s fear. Would she reveal the true identity of the treacherous guest? No! She comes in triumph, with news that the war is over. The rebels have been defeated and the union of country remains strong.

The men are spent come war's end
Photo credit: Gretjen Helene
If that sounds like cause to celebrate you’d be wrong. All of the poor wounded men feel used, spent like money to win the war. It is a dismal climax, no matter that we’re on the winning side. It seems to serve as a commentary that there are no winners in war, which would echo great classic war epics like Homer’s Iliad. Instead of exulting in the victory of the Union forces, the hospital is torn down and everybody saunters off with their wounded bodies and their tattered pride.

The world according to Whitman
Photo credit: Gretjen Helene
Whitman’s prose in the Memoranda is an exciting kaleidoscope through which the writer filters everything he experiences, witnesses, thinks, feels, observes, contemplates. It reads like a diary though – a fragmentary day-by-day, blow-by-blow account of a life lived in the moment. I wasn’t sure how the libretto would manage to turn it into something with a narrative.

Instead, the inspiration driving the opera forward is admirable and feels more pertinent to the American experience than ever before. The conceptual crossings that it addresses are many: between two individuals; across enemy lines; from wartime to its aftermath; between life and death.

But what kind of world does Aucoin create musically? The repetitive minimalism of Philip Glass most certainly makes a cameo appearance or two over the course of the opera and it was most effectively used to capture Whitman’s signature cosmic curiosity. For a writer who loved Donizetti, Rossini and Verdi, is this the way we are to understand Whitman would have heard the music of the world? I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case. But it was nevertheless a uniquely well-rounded and profoundly human experiment in modern opera.

– Lui

Memoranda during the war
Photo credit: Gretjen Helene

The post-war period is an even greater wasteland than before
Photo credit: Gretjen Helene

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