'Fallout' brings 'Music that Matters' to Oakland's Twentieth Century Club
Opera directors often look for ways to make old works relevant to our times.
Opera Theater of Pittsburgh's Summerfest has taken the more holistic approach to relevance by commissioning a new work inspired by pioneering environmentalist Rachel Carson.
“We think it's the first eco-opera. It is the first of a new series we're calling for the moment ‘Music that Matters,' ” says artistic director Jonathan Eaton. “We want to commission an opera every two years that addresses issues of significant importance to Americans today. I think opera should speak to people in their own language about matters that are important to them.”
Summerfest will present the world premiere of “A New Kind of Fallout” on July 18, 24 and 26 at the Twentieth Century Club in Oakland.
Nuclear fallout from above-ground testing of nuclear weapons was in the air, literally and conversationally, when Carson published “Silent Spring” in 1962. The Springdale native's warnings about dangers of pesticides drew strong counterattacks from the chemical industry.
The 50th anniversary of the publication of “Silent Spring” brought renewed appreciation for Carson's work. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, for example, commissioned an excellent piece from composer Steven Stuckey called “Silent Spring,” which it premiered in 2012.
Eaton decided Carson's work deserved operatic treatment and enlisted Pittsburgh playwright Tammy Ryan to create the libretto and New York-based composer Gilda Lyons to write the music. Parts of their opera were workshopped three times this season.
Ryan grew up in New York City and came to Pittsburgh in 1988 to earn her master's in playwriting at Carnegie Mellon University. She met her husband here and has made Pittsburgh her home.
Although a successful playwright, Ryan had never written a libretto before “Fallout.”
“I really didn't know what to do at first, but was very interested in the idea of writing an opera about Rachel Carson. I thought it would be about her but eventually realized (her) estate is pretty controlling and we weren't going to get any rights about her life.”
For Ryan, drama is always about characters and relationships.
“I imagined a young, married woman, newly pregnant, who read ‘Silent Spring' when it was first serialized in Life magazine in 1962,” Ryan says. “This begins her journey. She becomes more radicalized in the environmental movement.”
Ryan brings the drama home for Alice Frost by having her husband work in advertising for the Better Life Chemical Co. He's up for a promotion, and, at first, she doesn't want to rock the boat.
The opera connects then and now by opening with a prologue presenting Alice as an old woman.
“Fifty years later, she's looking back while, at that time, receiving chemotherapy, taking poison to kill the poisons of 50 years ago,” Ryan says.
As the composer, Lyons was eager to write the opera inspired by the work of Carson. Lyons' father read parts of “Silent Spring” to her when she was a child. Now she and her husband, composer Daren Hagen, are members of an organic farm co-op just north of New York City.
Lyons first studied visual arts and English, but songs were her doorway into music. She taught and studied composition as a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh.
“I always heard voices in my head, but I realized I wasn't crazy — I was a composer,” Lyons says.
She co-wrote the words of “Fallout” with Ryan, and appreciated the collaborative process.
“I need to be in control of the arc,” Lyons says. “She was very generous about overwriting.”
Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Tribe Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.