University of Hartford "H" Magazine - Winter 2019

University of Hartford

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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera - Wheeler: Naga; Surinach: The Owl and The Pussycat

12/17/2023 1:00 pm
12/17/2023 4:30 pm


Sunday Afternoon at the Opera host Keith Brown writes:

One good operatic fairy tale deserves another, as we proceed to the Third Sunday of the pre-Christmas Advent season. So, following Jules Massenet's operatic version of the Cinderella story, here's a twenty-first century fantasy opera that bears comparison with Mozart's "Magic Flute" by contemporary American composer, Scott Wheeler (b. 1952).

Naga translates roughly as "snake," but the title of Scott Wheeler's two act opera could more rightly be rendered as "The Two Magic Snakes" (2016), a story of spiritual quest intertwined with two magical snake deities, like those of the Roman caduceus, whose antecedents are the serpent in the Biblical Garden of Eden, or the mythological Greek Ouroboros, or the "worm" (ie. dragon) of medieval European legend. Only in Wheeler's opera the context is Far Eastern Buddhist civilization. The young questing monk (think Tamino) encounters a wise old spiritual master like Sarastro. There's a Pamino-like young wife of the hero to round out the cast. Listen for a children's chorus,too. The White Snake and Green Snake also get to sing.

Carolyn Kuan directs the five singing characters, with the White Snake Projects Chorus, the Boston Children's Chorus and White Snake Projects Orchestra. Carilyn Kuan became director of our own Hartford Symphony in 2011. Scott Wheeler's Naga was issued on two compact discs in 2021 through New World Records of Brooklyn, NY.

Just for fun, as a postlude to this Sunday's feature presentation, we return to the Western European tradition for a musical treatment of Edward Lear's famous whimsical poem, The Owl and The Pussycat. Catalan-American composer Carlos Surinach (pron. "Surinyac", 1905-97) wrote ballet music in 1977 for Martha Graham's illustrious dance troupe to act out in her choreography. The dance treatment is a distant extrapolation upon the poem, incorporating dolphins never mentioned in Lear's verse. Surinach's orchestration is curiously appropriate for "nonsense verse" - as eccentric perhaps as Lear the poet himself.

Gil Rose conducts the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, with Aliana de la Guardia as the narrator, a role which also seems to be an extrapolation imposed upon the original dance composition. The Owl and The Pussycat is one of three of Surinach's ballet music compositions set forth on a brand new BMOP Sound compact disc release.