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[From the Archives] A Wonderland of Possibilities: Unsuk Chin’s First Opera Premiered in Munich

Originally published on WETA 90.9's blog,Sunday, 8.5.07

“If there’s no meaning in it, that saves a world of trouble, you know, as we need not try to find any.”

This quote from the King in Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” might well describe the general listener’s absolution from the trouble of actively engaging with modern music.

available at Amazon
Unsuk Chin, Alice in Wonderland
K.Nagano / BStOp / Sally Matthews et al.
Unitel DVD

Any music that is so dense, academic, or inaccessible that the listener cannot find to it without first reading a small book about the work becomes a remote and abstract art. Ultimately, that creates a sense of distance from the broader public and the art-form that leads to the ivory-tower syndrome: A certain music becomes the prerogative of musicologists and composers, a rarefied elitist pursuit, perhaps an intellectual feather in the cultural hat of a country, but not part of the substance that forms or defines its culture. Horrifying as it may seem to those who cherish and defend the “fine arts”, (even) the fine arts need to be popular to a significant degree if they are to remain meaningful in the cultural life of a society.

Korean born composer Unsuk Chin from Berlin, to where she moved 1988 after studies with György Ligeti in Hamburg, says that she does not want music that needs to be explained. At least not for her first opera “Alice in Wonderland” that received its world premiere in Munich under Kent Nagano on Saturday, June 30th after more than a year of preparations. For a composer who had started out as a Darmstadt-school serialist, thoroughly influenced by Stockhausen & Co., that’s a bold statement and comes in part due to Ligeti’s thorough re-poling of her compositional outlook.

These moments of recognizability and comfort (even plain C-major makes an appearance in this opera, well possibly a novelty in 21st-century opera) are kept together by Chin’s sound world that placed near-impossible demands on the Staatsoper’s pit. Large enough to hold any Meistersinger and Elektra orchestra, for Alice the seating plan had to be arranged anew and re-arranged again to squeeze in every player. And still, the percussion batteries overflowed into the director’s boxes to both sides of the stage. It is not the least of achievements that Chin’s music, despite the quantity of exotic instruments used, never calls attention to these instrumental ‘special effects’ like the rather more crass works of RamírezSierra, Goljiov, and even Higdon or Schwantner. Harmonica and harpsichord, celesta and glockenspiel, Jew’s harp and little toy-pipes make their appearances, but to fine, never gratuitous effect; always appropriately in context to the extent that can be said at all about such an absurdist piece of work as “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”.And sure enough, there are moments in Ms. Chin’s music that need little explanation and are enjoyable to the broadest selection of ears. For one, Ms. Chin is fond of quoting, half mockingly, traditional opera in Alice, or, during the caterpillar‘s bass clarinet solo, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, or baroque elements during the tea ceremony.

Chin’s music, a tapestry of influences and ideas, is difficult to describe – not the least because it is difficult to remember much of it in precise ways. There were, however, a few moments where I thought: “This sure is better than Nicholas Maw’sSophie’s Choice“. It reminded of Sophie, which had its US premiere in Washington last season, while proving far less monotonous and same-ish, not pushing on ever so hard, and less tiring. Maybe the libretto lends itself to greater frivolousness or variety when you compose for words like “Twinkle, twinkle, little bat, how I wonder what you’re at…” than Holocaust, barbed wire, and “massive intakes of iron”.

The music of Alice remains a fairly difficult music, but it’s also imaginative, witty, well crafted, and – beyond the quotations – with moments of unsuspected beauty, never tiring, rarely taxing. And it certainly scores on every account against a recent Western-Asian Operatic premiere, namely The First Emperor, Tan Dun’s unbearable kitschy mix of second-rate Puccini with (in-and-of-itself interesting) Chinese percussion and string sounds.

But if the music was not as memorable as expected or desired, it was in some part the fault – or rather: achievement – of the staging. Brecht-student, painter, set-, costume designer, and stage director Achim Freyer, who staged the first performance of the Philip Glass trilogySatyagraha in Stuttgart (1981) and Salvatore Sciarrino’s Macbeth in New York, concocted a bizarre, fantastical set that dominated the performance to a degree that may have made Unsuk Chin feel uncomfortable. (Her support for the staging was – mildly put – shy of enthusiastic in several interviews given prior to the premiere.)

In front of steep stage, raked at 51 degrees (!) and nearly reaching the top of the visible part of the 90 feet high stage of the Staatsoper, stood lined up the eight singers (only their heads visible) who, in addition to Alice and the Queen, made up the cast’s different figures. All in the same makeup and wigs, operating detached white hands from behind a little barrier in front of them, they sang the parts that were then acted out by performance artists on the stage – floating (suspended from above), jumping, and gesticulating about in their oversized and colorful costumes. The croquet game (with rules resembling Calvinball), for example, was like a vast underwater ping-pong game with a likeness of Alice’s head serving as the ball. Frog and Dormouse (“You might just as well say that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”), March Hare and White Rabbit, and of course the ever-present, ever metamorphizing Cheshire Cat pop up and do their wily things on stage.

Colorful strings divide the stage into sections that are at times filled out with color (depicting the house in which Alice grows to enormous size) or sheer light, as in the final dream sequence that, like the sequence that serves as the prelude to the opera, are not actually from Lewis Carrol’s book but represent reoccurring dreams of Unsuk Chin about fatalism and faith. When Alice grows after eating the cake and cries herself a lake of tears, the 20-some feet tall Alice’s tears (one performer lifted into the air with the upper part, another at the bottom for the feet) are blue strips of fabric that endlessly gush from her eyes and fill the lower stage along with superimposed splatter of rain.

Regular Alice runs around in an oversized mask that has her appear childlike and surreal at once – to take that mask off only at the very end when she has put an end to the hokus-pokus of Wonderland by calling the shenanigans of the Queen of Hearts by their name. The Mock Turtle (“It’s the thing Mock Turtle Soup is made from”) appears in a big Campell’s Soup can, except it’s “Caroll’s [false] Turtle Soup” and plays the harmonica hauntingly – in between weeping helplessly. When Dame Gwyneth Jones appears as the Queen of Hearts, she is piercingly perfect, shrill and deliciously wacky, wobble-free – and, of course, a much-beloved favorite of the Munich audience, many of which still remember her legendary Marschallin.

Alice in Wonderland had originally been planned for the LA opera (where Kent Nagano has turned down Plácido Domingo’s offer for the role as Music Directorship but did agree to become Principal Conductor), but financial concerns scuppered the plans. Financial concerns are not much of a problem for Munich (one of the most generously subsidized opera houses in the world) where Nagano succeeded Zubin Mehta as Music Director in 2006. Alice became a Munich project and more ambitious in scope still.

The audience, conservative but open-minded, seemed to be plenty excited about the world premiere of Alice. Well over 100 audience members of all ages stood in line to secure a seat for an introductory talk, an hour before the second performance. But if Alice, sung in English and shown with German subtitles, was more than just a curiously interesting example of high art – gladly suffered in the name of being an audience that appreciates high art – remains questionable. The German audience, for one, has little experience with the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And to the extent the story is known, it’s through Walt Disney’s film, not the original book – a book that could easily be seen in a line with James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, or Luis Buñuel films like La Voie lactée and Le fantôme de la liberté. The translation, shown as sub- and supertitles, tried its best, but was invariably cut and left to choose between a literal translation and finding its own plays on words that didn’t always relate to the scene. Even an innocent pun like the Doormouse’s “Long tale, indeed”, while proudly wiggling around its long tail, remained obscure to most. That (lack of) perception presumably allowed for the staging to overpower music and story in the way it did… though whether that was good or bad can’t quite be said with a staging so imaginative and wonder-full as Achim Freyer.

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