Composer Lei Liang and soprano Susan Narucki were aware they were delving into a topic of immense importance in their new chamber opera, Inheritance, which deals with guns and gun violence. So they didn’t really need a reminder of the issue’s urgency when a gunman murdered 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue gathered for Shabbat morning services on October 27, the day of the opera’s third and final performance at the University of California San Diego.
“That Saturday performance was very difficult, personally,” said Narucki, who produced the opera and sang the central role of Winchester Repeating Arms Company heiress Sarah Winchester. Narucki, like Liang, is on the UCSD music faculty and they had previously collaborated in the one-woman chamber opera Cuatro Corridos, whose four stories (set by Liang, Hilda Paredes, Arlene Sierra, and Hebert Vázquez) dealt with human trafficking.
“Can art make a difference?” Narucki asked. “I have to say, when we were going onto the stage Saturday evening, I thought, ‘What can make a difference?’ There’s a part of me that felt we’ve gone so far in the direction of just not hearing each other—we’ve normalized insanity—that nothing could make a difference.”
That moment of hopelessness passed, as Narucki possesses a strong core belief in music’s transformational potential. After a moment of silence in memory of the shooting victims, conductor Steven Schick gave the downbeat and the opera opened with a percussive volley that could have been mistaken for gunshots. “I think what ends up happening, and the whole cast felt this way, is there’s a kind of intensity you give to your performance in situations like that,” she said. “It’s difficult, but it seems like it’s a cry to try to break through that wall of indifference.”
Whether the piece—with a libretto by Matt Donovan, design by Ligia Bouton, and stage direction by Cara Consilvio—succeeded on that level can only be gauged by the individuals in the audience, but there was another wall that this unusually powerful work breeched in its immediate connection with a timely, complex, and controversial political and social issue: the apparent barrier between life and new music.
“On the one hand we’re at this experimental music center [UCSD’s music department], redefining what music can be,” said Liang, who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2015 for his saxophone concerto Xiaoxiang (which has its own political subtext). Like Xiaoxiang—indeed, like most of his works—Inheritance tests, and even expands, the limits of the opera’s eight-member instrumental ensemble (two clarinets, trumpet, two percussionists, guitar, harpsichord and contrabass), creating a unique and wide-ranging sonic palette that extends far beyond the mere use of harmonics and multiphonics. “You can discover a lot of new things in things we thought were old,” said Liang, who is also research artist-in-residence at UCSD’s California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. “It’s just the way of thinking was old, the way of playing was old.
“[On the other hand,] Susan and I share this passion that we shouldn’t think of ourselves in a box. Of course there are a lot of things that are kind of fun just because you discover something new, but they have to find their right context, their right message, their relevance to the story. With all these inventions and creating our own new music language, we cannot disassociate ourselves from the importance of what is really urgent in our society. We have to face it.”
PURITY AND IMPURITY
While it’s difficult to generalize that Liang’s impulse to engage with social and political issues is shared by a growing number of composers in an increasingly polarized and politically charged environment, politics is proving to be fertile ground for composers looking to connect with an audience, and not only in chamber opera (a form Du Yun also used in her 2017 Pulitzer-winning Angel’s Bone, which offered an allegory on human trafficking) and opera (whether John Adams, who has repeatedly relied on current social and political themes, most recently in the 2017 Girls of the Golden West or David T. Little, in particular his 2016 opera JFK, but also his earlier Soldier Songs and Dog Days).
John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean and Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields both gently raise contemporary issues (climate change and the culture of coal), and both won Pulitzer Prizes (Adams in 2014; Wolfe in 2015), while younger composers such as LJ White, are dealing with issues that are no less immediate and in White’s case, particularly personal.
“There is a school of thought in contemporary classical music that music should be above everything else, that it should have a purity about it,” said White, who is on the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis. “To me, that doesn’t make sense. Everything we do in art comes from what’s around us and who we are as humans.”
White uses his own life as a metaphor. He is transitioning, and has been coming out over the last several years, which has inevitably affected his music. But even before that, he found himself interested in which musical elements signify genre. “I’ve been fascinated with the boxes we put ourselves into and how we can sort of combine signifiers from different worlds to create something that isn’t easily classifiable,” he said. “And I think that has a lot to do with the way I present myself in the world as well.
“I like my music to be a series of microdecisions, any of which could go in any direction to best convey what I’m trying to convey, the feeling or the purpose, rather than something that starts from a large decision that automatically makes a lot of your smaller decisions. That’s kind of what genre is, and also what being male or female is in a way. And that’s something else that’s charged and political, especially in the current moment.”
White’s compositions include pieces that are overtly political, such as his most recent work, Shuffled ‘Notes from “A Guide to Drag Kinging”’, based on a poem by Franny Choi and commissioned by Pushback, a new “modular contemporary music ensemble” whose mission is to advocate for groups that are “underrepresented and oppressed,” both in and outside the world of music.
“We feel that a lot of the art we have made, and we have seen others making, seems a little distant from our sociopolitical lives, and the rest of our lives, really,” said soprano Ally Smither, who co-founded the project with bassoonist Ben Roidl-Ward. (They met while students at Rice University.) “I’ve had a growing frustration with the idea that my artistic practice, and my life and the lives of those in my community, in political and socio-economic terms, were separate and they didn’t interact,” said Roidi-Ward. “I think it’s important, especially within the community and in creating new work, that the work has something to say about the world that we live in, and the world we want to live in, and the type of community we want to build.” Pushback, which formed earlier this year, has already commissioned pieces by Binna Kim, Karim Al-Zand (Songs from the Post-Truth Era), Theo Chandler (Tamora Monologues) and White, who has also just completed a work for Schick and the La Jolla Symphony, which will be premiered at UCSD on February 9, 2019.
White’s new orchestral piece for La Jolla, Community Acoustics, is inspired by phenomena in natural ecosystems where, in White’s words, “a stratification develops among species where they all kind of have a certain register that is theirs alone and that they use for their calls and communication with other members of their species. It forms this sort of interlocking registral environment that allows everybody to be heard…And scientists have observed this and seen cases where it’s disastrous when this gets disrupted.”
It doesn’t take much of a stretch to see that even nature can be political. “Maybe ten years ago, that wouldn’t have been a charged topic,” said White. “But it is now. Everything is political.” Schick, who commissioned the piece and is music director of the La Jolla Symphony, increasingly eschews the term “political music,” and in a new commissioning program he and Brenda Schick (his wife) are putting together, he’s focusing on music with “optimistic social values,” of which White’s piece is the first commission.
“I really realized that my objection to, in quotation marks, ‘political music,’ is that it is so often proscriptive,” said Schick, a faculty member at UCSD and an esteemed percussionist in addition to his activities as a conductor. “It is a statement built on a negative. ‘We can’t do this anymore.’ ‘We can’t have that.’ ‘Look how horrible this is.’ ‘Look at the problems here.’ I wouldn’t say that is the definition of political music, but I think it turns out that a lot of the music that takes on things that cross over into real life takes a remedial approach. And what I’m trying to do, and I believe this is what distinguishes my interests from at least some people, is that I see the job of music in this regard as an affirmative action toward a moral society as opposed to a punitive action toward an immoral society.”
GUNS AND HUMANITY
Liang and Narucki had similar concerns. They were not inclined to make a piece with an overtly political message, but were committed to doing something on the topic of guns. “There are works that are the result of some circumstance, some commission, some external reason, but there are also works that just have to happen,” said Liang, whose own experience with guns dates back to 1989 in Tiananmen Square, when as a teenage protester, he found himself face-to-face with armed soldiers.
“This is one of those topics we have to do, especially because it is so hard,” Liang said. “It’s such a difficult topic to deal with. It’s such a black and white thing (in terms of people’s opinions). It’s so easy for people to think, before they even see it, ‘I know what the conclusion is going to be,’ and it seems people have already made up their minds. It’s so hard to find the right angle, to say, ‘No, there’s a humanity in this we must face and we must rediscover as we find ourselves in this conversation.’ I think that’s the thing that took us a while to find: what is the perfect angle to do this, a personal one for us?”
Liang had met Donovan, the librettist, while both were fellows at the American Academy in Rome, and Donovan, a poet who is director of the Poetry Center at Smith College, had been doing research on gun violence. “I’m really concerned about gun violence in this country, so it seemed like something that would be worth thinking about as a subject,” said Donovan. “But I will say I was reluctant. I was cautious from the outset about pursuing the topic because I didn’t want to write anything that would at all be didactic. I wanted to write something that would address the issue, and allow the issue to resonate for the audience, but I didn’t want to be presumptive, and write something that would be any way instructional about how this very complex issue might start to be resolved in this country.”
By chance, Donovan came across an essay about Sarah Winchester and her San Jose “mystery house,” where she moved after the death of her child and then her husband, and she renovated and expanded continually for nearly four decades. Donovan explained how that shaped the work itself:
Clearly there are some apocryphal stories that are all wound up in her legacy, but if you believe the legends, or at least take them at face value for a moment, I think what we have is a woman who is concerned about bloodshed from guns, but complicit in it in a very direct way. But then, her response to that concern, and her response to the violence that was caused by the guns [that her late husband produced and which now supported her] was to move out West and create a labyrinth from which there’s no real escape and no clear resolution.
And that for me became a rich metaphor, because I see America in Winchester. I see a lot of people, gun owners and non-gun owners alike, who are concerned about gun violence, but we are at such an impasse given how polarized the topic is, that I don’t see a clear resolution, and I don’t see anyone building a clear path toward any kind of change. So the labyrinth metaphor, it resonated with me right away and aligned with this idea this piece will be suggestive rather than instructive.
Liang and Narucki immediately embraced the idea and engaged Donovan to write a libretto and began developing the production, supported by grants from Creative Capital, the NEA, ArtPower, UCSD, and New Music USA. “It was beautiful to discover Sarah Winchester, this person who embodies the complexity of this issue,” said Liang, continuing:
The thing that moved me the most was when I went to the Winchester House, and saw she was such a wealthy person and everyone thought she was keeping some hidden wealth in a safe. It was typical of her; she had a safe within the safe. And when she died, they [her servants] rushed to get the key to the safe and discovered only two locks of hair [of her husband and her daughter]. It was such a powerful moment; it really showed what meant so much to her. It was life, it was her daughter’s life, it was her husband’s life, and she was living in this long period of grief because of loss of life. So that just made me feel there’s something we all can connect with.
It’s the humanity of it. We can let go of everything else in life, but not the ones we love. That is just something as a father, as a friend, as a son, I can relate to very, very deeply. I thought she gave us a really great opening to discover who she was, and in that process, discover what’s happened to us.
In developing the score over a period of three years, Liang said he wanted to build his own “mystery house,” his own sonic labyrinth. Within it he incorporates references to Winchester, whether in the use of the number 13 in the work’s rhythmic scheme (Winchester’s favorite number) or the inclusion of a Japanese scale, as Winchester had a close relationship with her Japanese gardener and his family.
Divided into ten scenes within a single act set in Winchester’s house, the piece juxtaposes past and present, myth and reality, the character of Sarah and three ghosts who double as a tour guide and two tourists (sung by Josué Cerón, Hillary Jean Young, and Kirsten Ashley Wiest in this production). At the end of Scene 8, the character of Sarah finally gets fed up with hearing the tour guide explain her life and her motivations and confronts him:
This, then is madness? To mourn the dead, to at least attempt to respond? To keep the hammers pounding in order to bear the dead in mind? …
Madness is not to be haunted, to ignore the dead, to act as if they’ve never been alive. Madness is to do nothing as the numbers of the dead grow.
That’s as close as Inheritance comes to making an overt political statement, but in the context of the opera, it seems an inevitable conclusion as we realize we’ve somehow normalized the “insanity” of hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent men, women, and children needlessly dying on a routine basis.
“Right now, given the political climate not only in our country, in the world of culture, the world of politics and society, there’s a lot of upheaval,” Narucki said. ”I do think, no matter how much I revere and adore the works of the operatic canon, that new works that are small scale and address contemporary issues in this way, puncturing the balloon, or puncturing that wall, will end up adding more vitality to the form, and attracting new audiences.
“Hopefully, it’s actually much more. It’s not as much about attracting new audiences as it is about retaking the stage for what artists can be in our society. I feel artists in our field, in the classical field, have in some way ceded their power. Music and performance is an incredibly powerful way to connect people. We doubt that power. We doubt the power we have to move and connect, and works like this bring people together in a way that’s very unexpected. That’s what’s very interesting to me, the idea you can create community and discourse and new ways of understanding each other through pieces of art like this. We do it with film, we do it with some museum installations, we do it with popular music. Why can’t we do it with this?”