The wonderful performance, presented to an appropriately responsive audience, was a thrilling affirmation of both the vitality of contemporary music and musicians and the enduring capacity of New York City to embrace and inspire its artists. Lauten was unable to attend the performance of this final reworking of a piece she had been revising since its 1999 premiere, though she had wanted to … As news of Lauten’s death spread and was reported on in recent days (obituary by Margalit Fox, New York Times, 6/11/14; obituary by Kyle Gann, http://www.artsjournal.com/postclassic/2014/06/one-of-the-greats-elodie-lauten; remembrance-obituary by Kenneth Hamrick, http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/elodie-lauten), the excellence of the June 1 Waking in New York took on additional poignancy: just as Ginsberg, Lauten’s friend and colleague, supplied her with the opera libretto but did not live to see it performed, so too Lauten didn’t get to witness this performance, though she heard about its excellent progress in rehearsal. Audience members who may not have known of Lauten’s illness no doubt left the church that Sunday afternoon looking forward to hearing more of Lauten’s surprising, rich, rewarding and complex music in the future.
The chamber-opera Waking in New York – “New York City through the eyes of poet Allen Ginsberg” – is divided into two “acts” separated by a brief intermission. There is no formal traditional opera “plot” in this work. Rather, the “narrative” consists of the audience’s travels deeper and deeper into familiarity with the poet’s – Allen’s – thinking, ideas and perspectives and sensibilities; the poet’s stream-of-consciousness, rendered doubly accessible by text and music, becomes a space the audience is invited to inhabit as the city itself is inhabited.
The work’s opening movement, Allen’s solo Personal Ads, constitutes both the protagonist-poet’s plea for companionship and the artists’ – poet’s and composer’s – invitation to consider how lives are lived in New York City, a unique place as both location and inspiration. From the very beginning, Duer’s big, gracious voice proved capable of subtle, complex range and development. Personal Ads was informal, welcoming and conversational. Later in the first act, Duer’s Taxi: No, No, That wasn’t my opinion embodied passion and outrage. The second act’s I’m Uplifted, an examination of the psychological strategies needed to balance anxiety on the one hand and urban energy on the other, was at once elegantly eloquent and quirkily intimate. As a singer-actor, Duer managed throughout the piece to evoke both the autobiographical Allen, a man whose very nature embodied empathetic vulnerability to the complicated worlds he chose to inhabit, and the poet Ginsberg whose artistic vision combined passion and politics, humble reverence for the sublime and sardonic affection for the absurd. Duer’s performance was marvelous.
The three sopranos, Compassion, Freedom I and Freedom II, whether singing alone or in various combinations, functioned as the voices of Ginsberg’s muses, embodying individual threads of Ginsberg’s philosophical preoccupations and convictions. Some songs were brief New York City narrative sketches or street scenes or building inhabitants’ portraits. The women sometimes danced while singing, their movements reflecting the organic accessibility of Lauten’s music: in both her melodies and her multiple rhythms, Lauten uses the musical sounds and pace of the city to create something entirely new and original. The women’s voices, though well matched to each other, each in its own way flexible and rich, were not quite as powerful as Duer’s; on occasion, the instrumentalists overpowered the women. Nonetheless, like Duer, the three female soloists literally personified their texts: the gorgeous expressivity and musicality of their singing did full justice to both Ginsburg’s idiosyncratic poems and Lauten’s varied, demanding and often very beautiful music.
Though the first act promised nothing more or less than an exploration of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry and ideas, the second act gradually emerged into something larger and greater. What began as what Lauten called a chamber-opera transformed itself in both the profundity of Ginsberg’s texts and the sweep of Lauten’s music into something more sacred. The movement from Compassion’s beautiful solo, Song: The weight of the world is love, to the Ensemble pieces on New York, the Roof and Child to the final, breathtakingly exhilerating piece, Morning My Song for chorus, ensemble and soloists – “Hymns to humanity and New York City” – was a movement from secular to spiritual, from quotidian anecdote to thrilling paradigm. The sacred choral music model for the second act of Waking in New York would be not so much a plot driven oratorio but a celebratory “Te Deum” … here, for Ginsberg and Lauten, a “Te Vitam” or even a “Te Urbem.”
Hamrick’s direction of the soloists, the Choir of St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery and the Band – Mustafa Ahmed, Andrew Bolotowsky, Mat Fieldes, Amanda Lo, Jessica Meyer, Jessica Park, Reut Regev, Colin Stokes, Matt Sullivan, David Wharton – was splendid; the musicianship of the Band’s instrumentalists, together and individually, was excellent. The entire performance was the result of all the artists’ remarkably close collaboration with Lauten herself in the final weeks of her life.
The afternoon constituted a magnificent fulfillment of the promise of the Lower East Side Performing Arts, Inc, originally founded by Elodie Lauten herself. LESPA represents Lauten’s artistic goals and achievements. “Like her music,” LESPA Board President Carolyn Ratcliffe noted recently (http://www.elodielauten.net), “Elodie was electric and vital, bringing to life the spirit of compassion and tolerance portrayed by the poets she revered.”
Waking in New York: The Opera About New York City is a wonderful work. It was beautifully performed on June 1 in Ginsberg’s and Lauten’s beloved Lower East Side. Those of us lucky enough to have been at the concert will remember it was a fitting farewell to Elodie Lauten.
Waking in New York, chamber-opera by Opera by Elodie Lauten, libretto by Allen Ginsberg
June 1, 2014
Lower East Side Performing Arts
St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery
131 East 10th Street
New York, NY 10003