On Sunday November 15, Long Beach Opera (LBO) presented Songbook, an online program of 20 new songs by relatively unknown composers. It was LBO board member, Raulee Marcus, who had the idea to commission songs rather than have a gala fundraiser. LBO created a list of established opera composers who had some link to the company and asked them to be mentors. An illustrious quintet of successful composers: Anthony Davis, David Lang, George Lewis, Annie Gosfield, and Du Yun all accepted. LBO asked them for names of deserving composers who had not yet had major opera commissions.
LBO asked the composers to write about something from 2020-an experience, a feeling, an event, etc. The company also offered them the opportunity of selecting an LBO singer, selecting their own singer, or performing their own piece. They could produce their own video, have LBO shoot and produce it, or merely have a professional videographer edit it. LBO intentionally left the creative decisions up to the composers so as to allow for maximum flexibility. The creative choices the composers made reflect the scope of the project
The online program opened with Carla Kihlstedt’s thoughtful “Without Us” which asks the audience to imagine a world without human beings. Carla sang her music and played it on the violin. Her style was slightly reminiscent of Anton Webern, but not derivative. The addition of recorded vocals made us think of people who are no longer on earth. I would like to hear it again with a professional singer.
Bahar Royaee’s “Ghâl 2” featured vocalist Felicia Chen, the shadow puppetry of Deniz Khateri, and electronic additions by the composer. The shadows were fascinating; the animal cries were intense and unrelenting.
I love the title of Clifton Joseph Guidry’s song. “This Just Don’t Make No Sense” applied to so many things that happened in 2020. Soprano Lisa E. Harris sang with Jasmine Daquin, oboe, and Nick Dunston, double bass in a thought-provoking video that showed a world traveling at breakneck speed toward an unknown destination.
Composer Katherine Young presented a somewhat melodic piece that asked if we always see the same face when we look in a mirror. Perhaps expectation sometimes takes precedence over sight. Soprano Emily Scott sang gracefully with pianist Stephen Karr.
In “I Once Felt Safe,” Hunter Prueger told of gay men who no longer feel safe in the United States. Soprano Amanda Achen sang of distress and Andrew Murray played pulsating music on guitar and mandolin. Listeners watched pictures of butterflies lying in the grass.
One of the songs I found most intriguing was Tomeka Reid’s “Somewhere in this Global Garden.” Ugochi Nwaogwugwu’s text looked at what being Black means to Black people and Alicia Hall Moran sang it with wonderfully dark mezzo tones. I wish the composer had made more use of Hall Moran’s plum velvet low notes, however. Generally, I found that composers’ music was best served by professional singers like Hall Moran.
Aida Shirazi’s “Orbis,” taken from the works of Omar Khayyam says, “We are the true essence of felicity and sorrow, we are the source of justice and oppression.” Shirazi created disturbing sound images of low-flying planes.
Benjamin Beckman’s “Thoughts Before Drowning” is a eulogy for for the land, plants and animals that have disappeared because of global warming. Soprano Jennifer Lindsay and pianist Stephen Karr performed it exquisitely. “Thoughts Before Drowning” is a song that an artist could use in a recital tomorrow and I hope someone programs it soon.
“Home Song” by Philip Golub is made up of sounds that originate in normal home life: TV speech, kitchen noise, arguing neighbors, etc. These sounds accompanied singers Kelly Guerra and Eden Girma. I wish Golub would have used these sounds as inspiration for a more conventional score.
Jessie Cox’s “Breathing” starred bass-baritone Derrell Acon singing a vocalise that showed his wide range and was accompanied by percussion and tape.
“Aksobya,” for which composer Leila Adu-Gilmore sings and accompanies herself, tells of a calm, refreshing place as her music creates artful sound images.
Marcus Norris also offers pandemic respite with the amusing tale of “Block Party” with soprano Darshaya Oden narrating in tune to Jason Tyson’s piano. Oden’s smile at the finale was positively enchanting.
Citing the difficulty of leaving home and hearth for a new country, In Anahita Abbasi’s “Clouded Dusk” vocalist Jonathan Nussman spoke and sang with romantic fervor about what is lost with the journey as well as what can be retained through technology.
While performing Niloufar Shiri’s “Moving Surfaces” soprano Alejandra Martinez seemed a bit out of sync with Stephen Karr’s piano, but I cannot be sure exactly what the composer intended.
Olivia Shortt’s “The Museum of the Lost and Found” was the most amusing piece of the evening. As a rather robotic tour guide, soprano Alexandra Smither, accompanied by Aliayta Foon-Dancoes, violin, and Isidora Nojkovic, cello, guided listeners through a strange museum that may try to retain some of the tourists.
In Bethany Younge’s “Feet to Roots, Eyes to Air,” Nina Dante, intoned “I lay my heart against the heart of the forest: cheek to dirt.”
George N. Gianopoulos used a pleasant melody to evoke the pros and cons of current politics in “Polarity.” Bass-baritone Cedric Berry, accompanied by pianist Stephen Karr, sang to substantial music that reminded me of Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto.
In “By Your Side,” Sonja Mutić used electronic harmony to accompany her song of lockdown. The sounds overlapped, played alongside each other, and melted into one another as she sang.
The text of Shahab Paranj’s “Roots in the Land” likened leaving home to an abandonment of life. As Michelle Rice sand and Stephen Karr played, Tina Bararian danced their story in a cage of dry branches.
“I breathe the air you breathe,” sang baritone David Castillo as he performed Theresa Wong’s song “As We Breathe” and she accompanied him on the Koto. Although we are all conscious of breathing each other’s air in this tine of COVID 19, the song is about our interdependence. It made a excellent finale because it reminded watchers that all of us need to be mindful of people who need our help. Songbook can be seen on the LBO website until November 21, 2020.