Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Staging Philip Glass: Kepler at Spoleto

No story, no dialogue, no characters -- no problem.  For Philip Glass's opera Kepler, director Sam Helfrich found dramatic shape in snippets of Kepler's writings and poetry of Kepler's era.  He told the story by working with just a few staging ideas.

In this, he mirrored the composer, whose musical vocabulary consists of certain musical gestures so familiar by now as to be fairly trademarked.  Glass fans can listen to Kepler and say, "Ah! There's the chug-chugging bass line under rapidly ascending four-note scales; there's the castinet rhythm he's used since the mid-90s; there are the whirling flutes from Satyagraha ;  there's his signature sound, deedle-deedle played under deedledy-deedledy...."  New pieces by Glass are thus instantly recognizable as his, but that doesn't take away the inherent pleasure raised by the perpetual motion, the ominous undercurrents, and the scintillating sounds from the upper registers.  The pleasures are at least doubled by the element of virtuosity when an orchestra plays the music live.   After hearing the orchestra sustain concentration for two hours of roiling patterns and sudden stops,  the enthusiastic audience last Thursday saved its standing ovation for them and their conductor John Kennedy.

Director Helfrich's staging was compatible with Glass's approach, mixing and matching just a few visual and dramatic elements.   Over the fast-paced pulsing of the music, the drama moved very slowly three times through a simple cycle:   Kepler presents an idea about planetary motions;  the idea is resisted, questioned, and ultimately accepted by a cohort of scholars (an ensemble of six soloists, three men and three women); a chorus receives the idea and responds.   Twice, the response is prayer and heartfelt praise of God;  in the climax to Act One, the response is violent repression.

None of this is more than suggested in the text.   One time Kepler mentions how horrible the times are with their martial drums and "terrible trombones," at which point Glass indulged a little musical joke, giving the trombones a little slide to play.  Soldiers' chanting "Vanity of vanities" is all the explanation we get for their shoving Kepler and the cohort below stage to a dungeon.  The responses of the scholars are made clear simply by the fine acting of the performers, each one distinguishing his or her character through body language and occasional solos.  As Kepler, baritone John Hancock conveyed dignity, self-doubt, courage to put his own ideas to the test, courage to face opposition.  In one humorous aria, Kepler names his many enemies, and Hancock seemed to have a nuanced feeling about each name.

Two non-singing, non-speaking actors are present throughout the drama, a little boy and a woman.  Are they Kepler in his childhood, with his mother?  Are they Kepler's wife and child?  The only time that a child is mentioned, it's Kepler's figuring the minute of his conception and retro-testing the validity of his horoscope (e.g., that the child conceived at that moment would be a boy, curious and bothersome "like a dog").   First seen looking through a telescope, and often revealed watching Kepler from the sidelines, they could be either, or merely a representation of nascent curiosity and its nurturing. 

Helfrich's design team kept the scenery simple: a floor-to-ceiling wall, curved to suggest the elliptical shape of planetary orbits, Kepler's great discovery. On a screen embedded in that wall, we saw only animated abstract shapes, such as the horizontal beam of light that rose slowly throughout the opening number.  Three times, the wall stage left separates into four segments to suggest a giant crucifix, at times when the chorus sings praise to the deity.  Kepler sings that his discoveries clarify God's creation, complementing the Bible which, he says, should be read "not as a scientific text."

Mom seemed bemused when I described the opera Kepler.  "Kepler was an astronomer in the 1620s.  There's no dialogue in the show."  So, what happens?  "He begins with certain ideas about the orbits of the planets, and then he changes his mind."  Mom looked doubtful.  "One time, soldiers come in and there's a fight."  Mom just shook her head.

Well, now that I've seen it, I can testify that it was good.

[Note:  The director Sam Helfrich saw this post and added this helpful note: 
I wanted to share one thing: when Kepler was 8 years old, his mother took him to the top of a mountain to watch Halley's Comet. This fact inspired me a great deal: the idea of a curious young boy watching the night sky and later becoming one of the world's great astrophysicists! I didn't feel the audience needed the back story, as long as they understood that the child's love of the sky could inspire greatness in the adult, but I knew I wanted to include the image.
My friend Susan and I "got it!"]

(Reflections on KEPLER, an opera by composer Philip Glass, libretto by Martina Winkel.  Produced at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC.  Directed by Sam Helfrich. Performance May 30.)

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