|Daron Hagen:||Shining Brow|
Frank Lloyd Wright: Michael Sokol, tenor
Catherine Wright: Kitt Reuter-Foss, mezzo-soprano
Louis Sullivan: Barry Busse, baritone
Mamah Cheney: Carolann Page, soprano
Edwin Cheney: Bradley Garvin, baritone
Carleton: John Odom
Madison Symphony Orchestra
Madison Opera Chorus
Roland Johnson, conductor
Based on its world premiere performance Wednesday evening at the Oscar Mayer Theatre, the opera Shining Brow is a stunning artistic achievement. Though not without problems of various kinds, the opera amply fulfilled the expectations created by the year-long promotional campaign preceding its first performance. In addition, the premiere was itself an uncommon event, with stretch limos and more tasteful vintage automobiles disgorging bejewled men and women in wondrous costumes, local television cameras covering arrivals at the theater, and gallons of volatile hair spray perfuming the indoor air. Ordinarily, when there's that much fuss over something, the main focus tends to get submerged by the glamor, glitter, and glitz. Fortunately for lovers of music drama, this opera deftly defied drowning in its own build-up and in the trappings of the social season's main event.
Based on the early life of Frank Lloyd Wright and his clients Edwin and Mamah Cheney, culminating in the tragic fire and loss of life that destroyed the first Taliesen at Spring Green, Shining Brow was composed by the 31-year-old former Milwaukean Daron Hagen, now living in New York. The music is full of quotations and other musical allusions, at once serious and good-humored. In common with much American composition of the 80s, it projects a very mixed palette of styles, from highly abstract forms verging on expressionism to tonal lyricism of the unapologetically transparent sort, with many other things between and around these extremes. If one were forced to pick a single parallel or near-parallel stylistic model, it would be Benjamin Britten, based on the opera's complex orchestration, on original and enormously difficult vocal lines for solo voices, and on extraordinarily skilled choral writing. This kind of variety, however, seemed in keeping with the highly energetic and deeply conflicted emotional personas of the main characters, above all Wright and his mentor, Louis Sullivan.
Scored for very large orchestra (Roland Johnson ably conducted the Madison Symphony Orchestra), the work is of prodigious length: three hours, counting an intermission between the two acts. A further impression of length seems to arise from the sheer emotional intensity of the characters and their painful, complex circumstances; there's but little happiness in Shining Brow.
The text is by the Irish poet Paul Muldoon. It is classically heroic in its aim, full of literary allusion, and studded with sometimes peculiar refrains. Though there are many instances of deeply moving images, some of the devices intended to provide unity and to illuminate emotional states are downright deflating. For instance, "My mouth is full of nails" turns to "My mouth is full of pins," then "full of mud," "full of brine," and so forth, until the list includes krill, silt, steel, mud again, and iodine. In the end, this sort of trope clashes with common sense. However, the most difficult and least successful aspect of the entire text in the larger context of the work is that so much of its liberal quotation of Greek, Roman, German, and Wrightian aesthetic ideas clashes with the very notion of lyricism. The opera is full of great lyrical moments, but also full of lines that are tendentious and inherently unmusical. Given the lyricism of Wright's magnificient prairie architecture, this seems unjust and unfair to his legacy.
As Wright, Michael Sokol fully manifested the brooding, self-absorbed, conflicted architect, with all his swagger, pomposity, imperiousness, and cold-heartedness. Sokol's voice is rich and resonant, and he created the many moods of the central character with consummate dramatic skill. It was a magnificent performance of an especially demanding role.
As Mamah Cheney, Carolann Page had to project the determination of a woman bent on making her own way despite her failed marriage to Edwin, her infatuation with Wright, the gossip and scorn of the society whose mores she would reject at heavy emotional cost, and the eventual remoteness of her position as Wright's lover. In the end, she is consumed by the smoke and flame of the 1914 fire. Vocally and dramatically, Page was the equal of the part.
To my ear, the best music is given to and came from Barry Busse, in the role of Louis Sullivan. He is a truly tragic figure, lost in loneliness, surpassed in fame and acclaim by Wright, and consigned by Fate to drown himself in brandy, brooding and lamenting his estrangement from Wright in Chicago's Cliff Dweller's Club, like a solitary eagle in his aerie. With compelling vocal and emotional power, Busse makes Sullivan into the one great rock on which all of Wright's achievement must rest. As we near the centennial of their great collaboration, it seems likely history will make a greater monument to Sullivan than to Wright, and somewhat surprisingly so did the performance: alone among the large cast, Busse's bows were greeted by sustained shouts of "Bravo!" from all over the house, including from me.
Bradley Garvin, in the role of Edwin Cheney, made a tall and striking figure as one of Wright's most important, and ultimately his most fateful, clients. In the course of his long suffering, Cheney reifies one of the opera's greatest lines: "For everything that is built, something is destroyed." As his house goes up, his marriage to Mamah dissolves; as Taliesen burns down, Cheney's tragedy is revealed. Garvin has a flexible, rich voice, a commanding stage presence, and subtle acting skills, all superbly employed in this performance.
Kitt Reuter-Foss's sumptuous (and huge!) mezzo voice, more impressive each time I hear it, rang round and clear as Catherine Wright, the architect's first wife, summarily scorned and rejected in favor of the alluring Mrs. Cheney. It's not a large part, really, but the character remains present in the drama long after the singer has left the stage, for Catherine refused to give Wright a divorce. Had she done so, Wright and Mrs. Cheney (who was divorced from Edwin) might have married and gained the bourgeois respectability so deridingly denied them by the upright and priggish denizens of pretentious Oak Park and sylvan Spring Green. That in turn could have prevented the story's main cataclysm, the disastrous fire and murders perpetrated by an apparently demented or obsessed chef in Wright's Taliesen household, Julian Carleton.
As Carleton, John Odom had the thankless task of being the arch villain. A speaking part, Carleton is the axis on which the whole wheel of Wrightian bad karma turns, for without the murders, the central dramatic event of Wright's life would not have happened and there would be little to write an opera about. In a touching bit of poetry addressed to a child, Carleton creates a magical, perhaps touched, identity to lay the foundation for the disaster still to come.
Without the slightest question, the production values of Shining Brow far surpassed anything ever seen in my nearly 40 years in the town. The detailing of sets, lighting, costume, and stage direction was really impressive. David Birn's set design could be faulted for art-historical accuracy in a few matters pertaining to Wright, but it recreated the architect's line, colors, and shapes, his graceful denial of gravity, and above all the subconscious claustrophobia of so many of Wright's spaces. Pivoted around a Wright logo in the corner of a lightly raked stage, the set places scene changes (two in the first act, three in the second) behind a scrim and a heavy drop. Unfortunately, the backstage clumping around did intrude into the on-going action during these shifts. The opening full set of Wright's office, with drafting tables, chairs, and lamps of his design, was a real tour de force. This kind of excellence permeated the whole, right through to the ashen and bleak final scene.
The lighting, designed by Christopher Akerlind, was the best I've seen in many years (since Gilbert Hemsley, actually). Lighting is one of those things you see without seeing it, ideally; more than showing, it reveals, and in this production it was the perfect complement to the set, to the central ideas, and to the drama. Attention to detail manifested in the costuming as well, designed by Laura Crow. One would expect everything to be accurate, and indeed the clothes were more accurate historically than the Wrightian architectural elements. One of the most effective bits, I thought, was the upright, vertical Cheney, all in black, a cold obsidian column amid the warm, earth-toned horizontality and spatial fluidity of Wright's designs.
Steven Wadsworth's stage direction smoothly arranged the actors in a large and complex physical and emotional space, moved them lyrically from one place to another, and gave them gestures and stances that helped clarify their relationships to the music and text. These are also things seen in an unseen way, the seamlessness of which is a hallmark of excellence, I feel.
The Madison Opera chorus deserves major applause for its delicate and skillful execution of very difficult parts. Furthermore, an even larger chorus of technicians, planners, backers, boosters, builders, and just plain fans all had key notes to sound in this triumph. Although Shining Brow may have trouble getting more performances after its three showings here -- things done on this scale are never a lark -- and despite a few insuperable difficulties in the text and music, it is nevertheless a great work, one of which its creators may be more than justly proud. When all is said and done, it was well worth all the hoopla.
Isthmus, April, 1993
Copyright 1993 Jess Anderson