Excerpts from an opera based on Janet Frame's novel The Rainbirds (also known as Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room), were previewed last month in New York at the Roulette theatre in Brooklyn.
Experiments in Opera presented selections from Rainbird, a work-in-development between EiO co-founder Aaron Siegel and director, Mallory Catlett, based on the work of author Janet Frame.
The songs from Rainbird set the scene for another work called The Nubian Word for Flowers.
New York Times reviewer Zachary Woolf wrote in response:
“Everyone will now be too far away,” a character quietly sings in Aaron Siegel’s new “Rainbird.” It’s a softly shattering summary of what death does.
That line stuck in my mind during the work that followed excerpts from “Rainbird” on the program Thursday evening at Roulette in Brooklyn: “The Nubian Word for Flowers,” a new opera by Pauline Oliveros left unfinished when she died, just over a year ago. ....
Mr. Siegel’s “Rainbird” is an artful, short chamber-opera rumination inspired by the author Janet Frame. The vocal lines unite pop simplicity, medieval-style incantation and a singsong spoken style borrowed from Robert Ashley. With its central figure a man who finds himself stranded between life and death, it set the mood for the warmly felt haunting that was “The Nubian Word for Flowers.”
~ New York Times, December 2, 2017, Page C5
You can read a fascinating conversation between the composer and director of Rainbird at the Experiments in Opera website. Here is an excerpt:
Collaborators Aaron Siegel (composer) and Mallory Catlett (director) have been exploring the work of Janet Frame, and particularly the novel ‘Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room’ as they make a new opera together. They have worked together and with performers to shape Frame’s writing into performance and have encountered a range of questions and opportunities along the way. They sat down in advance of a workshop performance of scenes from the opera on November 30th at Roulette to discuss aspects of their working process and some of the ideas that are embedded in the source materials for their new opera ‘Rainbird.’
CATLETT: When I was working in graduate school, I was also studying with a literary professor there who happened to teach Frame. He was a post-colonial scholar. I was working with this French philosopher named Hélène Cixous, and we were doing this reading of her philosophy of Frame’s work, which he had never done. So it was pretty extensive.
And I think it had a lot to do with what I was really drawn to. And so applying that sort of philosophic framework on the writing was the way in which I understood why the writing was important, and what I was going to do.
I was listening to the radio one day, and it was some piece of music that was telling the Orpheus and Eurydice story. I think it was the Monteverdi, but I don’t know. I just had this image, and knew I was going to do a piece about Orpheus and Eurydice. And then the more I learned about Orpheus, I wondered I how could wade into that story without reproducing those gendered dynamics of the myth.
And at the same time, I was just reading Frame, and her work is extremely Eurydic and Orphic. It has lush poetry that takes you over. But it also has this kind of cyclical death pattern that’s constantly running through it. And it’s all over the novel.
SIEGEL: How do you see the Orpheus myth of playing out in ‘Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room?” Because Godfrey is sort of an Orphic character, and yet there’s not a sense of him being the poet.
CATLETT: I think this book is very Orphic because, in the last part of the myth after Eurydice dies a second time, Orpheus is actually ripped apart by these Bacchanalia women, and he becomes an oracle. He gets more dangerous because he has had this experience. He becomes more of a threat and so he is destroyed. ‘Yellow Flowers’ is much more about this part of the myth, about how the culture turns away and has to destroy the thing it is afraid of.
I’ve never really been that interested in myth. I’ve never been that interested in Greek theatre, but I think a lot of my earlier work with Frame was really understanding what myth is in a different way.
Coming back to Hélène Cixous, she describes myth as trying to find the point of origin of all of these moments. In Orpheus you have this quintessential relationship of a man and a woman, where she’s always behind. He has to look back. So the question is: how does one subvert myths or change them at the root?
Cixous has a great way of reinterpreting Adam and Eve, which is that the knowledge is actually in the taste of the fruit, and that women have always been the ones that sought out the knowledge despite the risk. But it’s actually in the sensual kind of taste, and in the smell. And Adam is much more about prohibition and law. Like the policing of that stuff. When you go all the way back, then you can begin to unravel it on your own terms, which is what I think Frame is very much doing. I guess I’m much more of a seeker like this somehow. It feels a little bottomless sometimes, for me.
SIEGEL: I really appreciate the fact that in this collaboration, we can help and challenge each other in those ways, to see things differently and also to attend to the ways each other are seeing them. And the challenge of composing is always “what are people actually going to do?” You have to prescribe that in some ways if it’s going to have its own identity. I try to find that balance between setting things down in structurally immovable ways and letting the performers have some ownership of their material. I think that’s why composers get a bad rap, because of the sense that they’re inflexible. But trying to figure out how to attend to the form and also give space for the collaboration to feed into the process is really interesting.
CATLETT: Directors have that same sort of rap too. I think we’re both actually sensitive to that. I think we’re both aware of our power, and I think we share a skepticism about its necessity and danger. There was a point in my creative life where I realized that if I want performers to be invested, I have to do things that will undermine my authority.
(November 18, 2017)
The Nubian Word for Flowers; A Phantom Opera / Rainbird
Premiere of The Nubian Word for Flowers by Pauline Oliveros & IONE;
Scenes from Rainbird by Aaron Siegel & Mallory Catlett.
Thursday, November 30, 2017 @ 8:00 pm
RAINBIRD: Chamber Opera Adaptations of a Janet Frame novel co-produced with Experiments in Opera. Composer Aaron Siegel with singers Gelsey Bell and Justin Hicks.
Rainbird:Gelsey Bell – Voice
Justin Hicks – Voice
Jade Hicks – Voice
Andie Springer – Violin
Aaron Siegel – Percussion
Matt Evans – Percussion
Mallory Catlett – Director