However, it’s not what we normally think of as an opera. And the performance, characterized by both moving strengths and disconcerting weaknesses, unfolded, awkwardly and interestingly … and then, at the end, quite powerfully … as a not-opera. Typically, operas’ drama lies in their plots; as audiences, when we’re moved, it’s because we’ve witnessed something dramatic. But in this performance of Kotik’s Master-Pieces, the dynamic and moving intensity of the work’s conclusion lay in the fact that the work’s fundamental plotlessness – the libretto is essentially a series of poetic extractions from a 1936 lecture on aesthetics, ontology and existentialism – was transformed into a very personal drama in which the audience cannot avoid a shift from witness to participation.
This is difficult stuff. The production was well intended; some elements were tremendously successful, and others were superfluous, alternately silly and sophomoric.
The spacious, formal ballroom of the magnificent recently restored neo-Renaissance 1895 Bohemian National Hall on East 73rd Street is equipped with standard proscenium stage; for Master-Pieces, the audience was seated in risers on the stage looking out into the expanse of the ballroom. Scattered throughout the room were six piles of large, thick, glossily covered books – Czech Plays: Seven New Works, as it turned out – bound up by packing twine into odd, post-modern stools; they seemed like odd choices for occasional chair substitutes, a stylistic misstep on the part of stage designer David Bazika. The musicians – members of The S.E.M. Ensemble, Pauline Kim Harris/violin, Liuh-Wen Ting/viola, Jeffrey Reinhardt/English Horn, oboe, Tim Leopold/trumpet, Amanda Gookin/violincello and Chris Nappi/percussion – were stationed right near the audience, and Kotik conducted from one of the risers.
The opening music – something like a solo-overture to the orchestral overture – began with violinist Harris; she played with her back to the audience, facing the empty ballroom. Her music – Kotik’s music – was, from its very beginning, elegantly dense; passages of urgency contained central cores of meditative texture. After almost five minutes, the violin was joined by the trumpet, and then, gradually, the instruments all entered and exited, participated in various chamber combinations, and gradually created, after almost 20 minutes, some semblance of a coherent small orchestra.
Narrators suddenly, briefly appeared, speaking almost unintelligibly. Three men – dressed informally in black trousers, shirts and vests – then entered, as did – at the far, far end of the ballroom – a slender, near motionless young woman. She – this young Gertrude Stein figure, spectral in the distance – wore a stunning, long sleeved and wide-skirted pitch-black dress.
Over the course of the evening, soprano Christina Kay took absolute possession of the performance: it was hers. Alternately speaking and singing, she embodied the work’s purpose: as the main voice of the “opera,” she was both its conveyer of meaning and its object-lesson.
The libretto, assembled by Kotik himself, is taken from two Gertrude Stein sources. Stein’s “What are Master-Pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them?” was a 1936 lecture delivered at Oxford University. Kotik also took brief passages from Stein’s World War II autobiographical writings, and cobbled together spoken pieces from these to attempt the construction of an historical and geographical location for Stein’s musings about art, identity and creating. Most of the libretto consists of poetic extractions from Stein’s “Master-Pieces” lecture, offered up by Kay-Stein.
At the beginning of the piece, when Kay began her hour-long continuous performance, she was so far back from the audience that many of her words, both spoken and sung, whether or not she was accompanied with some or all the chamber orchestra, were unintelligible. The acoustics of the ballroom were largely, though not entirely, to blame. The three men who occasionally sang with Kay – or around her, as they moved slowly around the ballroom – were also difficult to understand; consummately skilled and experienced singers Steven Caldicott Wilson/tenor, José Pietri-Coimbre/baritone and Nicholas Hay/bass were all unable to convey their texts clearly.
In many operas, and in many halls and performance spaces, even non-traditional ones, superscript titles provide audiences with the libretto text; sometimes, even English language operas presented to English speaking audiences benefit from this aid. Superscript titles would have made a useful difference in this Master-Pieces: not being able to understand Kay and the other singers at the beginning of the piece was frustrating. (Some might say, however, depending on their mood and intellectual inclination, that because the libretto was essentially written by Gertrude Stein, there wasn’t much sense to be found in her words in the best of circumstances.)
This particular problem – the unintelligibility of Kay’s words – gradually diminished. Slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, Kay moved closer and closer to the audience from the back of the ballroom. By the time she had closed half of the long distance, what she said and sang was clear; by the end of the work, when she was barely three feet from the first row of the audience, her words and vibrant presence were so close in on the audience that her passionately expressed ideas might have felt like we had sung them ourselves.
In the end, the questions and proposed responses contained in Stein’s lecture – the suggestion that created masterpieces and daily human living can barely coexist, that identity and being themselves are more powerful and enduring than whatever object the process of creating might produce – are presented so elliptically that there is no secure and simple meaning to the opera. Yet Kay’s singing and speaking, and her brilliantly acted, triumphant concluding certainty that the philosophical truths she has arrived at are both intelligible and important were so vibrant and alive that the opera felt big and gorgeous. Whether or not one is predisposed to find sense in Stein’s writing, the Stein-figure in this Master-Pieces experiences and embodies quest-success: in her very being and question-asking, she creates … and in Kotik’s hands, is a creation, a piece made by a master. It’s a thoroughly Steinian ending.
Though the strength and skill of The S.E.M. Ensemble musicians, led by Kotik, and of Kay were almost always evident, several production elements contributed to the weaknesses of this performance: Jiří Nekvasil’s direction was uneven at best. Wilson, Pietri-Coimbre and Hay’s stilted choreography – slow-motion short walks in angles; modified leaps over light shafts on the floor; extended perches on the journal-stools – seemed ignominiously pointless. Twice, black-and-white floor-to-ceiling photos of Kay’s face were projected on one of the walls of the ballroom; whatever purpose the photos were intended to serve was indiscernible. The location of the narrators on a balcony over the ballroom created such a distance from Kay and the musicians that the usefulness of the stories they sketched out was diminished.
Kotik’s music is dense and demanding, contemporary and formal; it is idiosyncratically self-contained. Given the poor acoustics of the ballroom, it is hard to know whether voices and instruments are, in fact, successfully balanced in Master-Pieces. In a different setting, when the score could be more fairly assessed, the complex question of whether or not the work could reasonably be shortened could be addressed.
Gertrude Stein and Petr Kotik are both acquired tastes. Master-Pieces might be loved by some, and endured with only grimacing patience by others. In this particular performance, even those who might feel ambivalent about Stein, could only, in the end, feel respect and affection for Christina Kay: her “Stein” was vital, intelligent, generous and deeply rewarding.
Audience response to the piece was essentially positive. In spite of the unevenness of the production, the intellectual and artistic integrity of both the work itself and the artists engaged in presenting shone through.
Master-Pieces, A Chamber Opera (April 28, 2018)
Czech Center at the Bohemian National Hall, 321 East 73rd Street, in Manhattan
Running time: one hour and 20 minutes without an intermission
For more information, visit http://www.semEnsemble.org