Visitations (Theotokia and The War Reporter)
Composer Bio: Jonathan Berger’s “dissonant but supple” (New York Times) compositions integrate science and human experience, i.e. what does a cancer cell or golf swing sound like? And why does a song make us cry? Berger is the Denning Family Provostial Professor in Music at Stanford University, where he teaches composition, music theory, and cognition at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). He was the founding co-director of the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts (SICA, now the Stanford Arts Institute) and founding director of Yale University’s Center for Studies in Music Technology. Referred to as “lush and inviting” by the San Francisco Chronicle, Berger’s music ranges from vocal, orchestral, and chamber works to electroacoustic constructions. He was featured as composer-in-residence at Spoleto Festival USA (2010) with a version of the harrowing and chilling Theotokia (written for Dawn Upshaw), based on Berger’s recent research into auditory hallucinations. His chamber opera, Visitations, premiered in April, and Livia Sohn’s performance of his violin concerto, Jiyeh, paired with that of Benjamin Britten, was released in June on Harmonia Mundi’s Eloquentia label.
Librettist Bio: DAN O’BRIEN is a playwright and poet. His play The Body of an American, about the haunting of war reporter Paul Watson, received the inaugural Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama, as well as the PEN Center USA Award for Drama and the L. Arnold Weissberger Award, and premiered at Portland Center Stage in _2012, directed by Bill Rauch. The Body of an American received its European premiere in an extended run at the Gate Theatre in London in 2014 in a co-production with Royal & Derngate Theatre in Northampton, England, directed by James Dacre. O'Brien wrote the libretti for Jonathan Berger's Visitations: Theotokia & The War Reporter, two chamber operas commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mellon Foundation for Stanford Live, premiering at Bing Concert Hall at Stanford University in 2013, and at the Prototype Festival in NYC in 2014, directed by Rinde Eckert. An earlier version of Theotokia premiered at the Spoleto Festival USA, performed by Dawn Upshaw. O'Brien is currently under commission from Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles to write a new play on the history of the California economy with Grammy-winning composer Quetzal Flores. O'Brien's debut collection of poetry entitled War Reporter was published in 2013 with Hanging Loose Press in Brooklyn and CB Editions in London. War Reporter is the recipient of the 2013 Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and was shortlisted for the 2013 Forward Prize for Best First Collection.
|Other Artistic Personnel:
Tara Helen O’Connor (flutes)
Pascal Archer (clarinets)
Steven Schick (percussion)
Pedja Muzijevic (piano)
Geoff Nutall (violin)
St. John (violin)
Lerley Robertson (viola)
Christopher Costanza (cello)
Stephen Tramontozzi (contrabass)
Heather Buck (soprano)
Steven Caldicott Wilson (tenor)
Christopher Dylan Herbert (baritone)
Craig Phillips (bass)
April 12, 2013
Theotokia is an exploration of the mind of Leon, a
schizophrenic who experiences religious hallucinations and suffers from
obsessive ritualistic behavior.
Scene 1: Mother Anne, spiritual
leader of the Shakers, invites Leon and her congregants to obtain a secret
Scene 2: The Yeti Mother, an imaginary mother of God, calls to Leon from her cave in the Himalayas.
Scene 3: Leon, an institutionalized schizophrenic, compulsively beats out a rhythm on his own body.
Scene 4: Leon’s mother laments her son’s condition, concluding accusatorily, “How could he do this to me?”
Scene 5: Leon obsessively reiterates his mother’s question, his speech transforming into glossolalia as he invokes the Yeti Mother.
Scene 6: The Yeti Mother answers Leon’s distress with a song in celebration of excrement.
Scene 7: The Yeti Mother
reveals that she is Leon’s true mother, and that she, along with her
congregation of Yetis, will help Leon transcend his physical limitations.
Scene 8: The Yeti Mother and
her Yeti children transform into Mother Anne and her congregants once again,
soothing Leon with the knowledge that he is now in possession of a secret
knowledge. In a rare and painful moment of lucidity, however, Leon realizes
that he is alone and suffering from his mental illness.
The War Reporter
an opera in six scenes for five
voices and chamber orchestra Music by Jonathan Berger Libretto by Dan O’Brien
The War Reporter depicts the true story of the inner
struggle of Paul Watson, a war reporter who believes he is being haunted by the
spirit of the desecrated American soldier he photographed in the streets of
Mogadishu in 1993 (a photograph that won Watson the Pulitzer Prize shortly
thereafter). Although the libretto’s narrative traverses six geographical
locations, the actual drama is set entirely in the psyche of the reporter as he
struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Scene 1: Mogadishu. The site of the downing of a Blackhawk helicopter during the 1993 U.S -led raid on Mogadishu. Watson and his interpreter pursue the rumor of a captured American soldier and find his corpse being mutilated in the street by a mob. Watson photographs the corpse, but as he is about to snap the photo he hears the voice of Staff Sergeant William David Cleveland warn him: “If you do this, I will own you forever.” Watson takes the photograph.
Scene 2: Columbia. In Columbia University’s stately Low Library, a reception for Watson’s Pulitzer Prize is underway. Amidst a flurry of congratulation and well-wishes, Watson grows increasingly distracted, if not disturbed. The reception party transforms into a vivid and violent reimagining of the brutality of the desecration of Cleveland, culminating in the ominous warning, “The ghosts are getting closer.” Watson’s boss John Honderich makes note of his reporter’s emotional state. Watson replies that he feels badly about the soldier’s family. Honderich asks if he has sought out Sergeant Cleveland’s mother yet, to apologize or at least explain, and Watson is shocked at himself for not having done so already. Honderich reveals that Watson’s colleague Kevin Carter has also won a Pulitzer this year, for his photograph of a vulture waiting for a starving child in Sudan to expire. At first it appears that Carter is taunting Watson, boasting that he has received greater applause than Watson. Jarred back to reality, Watson hears Honderich in fact describing Carter’s recent suicide, presumably at the guilt caused by this photo of the vulture and the starving girl. Watson responds with anger at Carter, before admitting—at least to himself—that he has also considered suicide before but
simply lacked the courage. Instead, Watson places himself in harm’s way by
returning to war zones.
Scene 3: Johannesburg. In the
office of Dr. Grinker, a psychiatrist in Johannesburg, Watson recounts his
father’s experience as a soldier in World War Two. He becomes agitated by the
memory of holding his dead father’s souvenir Lugar as a boy, and he connects
that experience for the first time to his career as a war photographer. Grinker
asks why Watson loathes himself—a revelatory idea to Watson—but registering his
agitation Grinker suggests ending the session. Watson shows the photograph of
Cleveland’s body to Grinker, who recognizes it. Watson reveals that he is
constantly haunted by Cleveland’s ghost, and that the ghost is threatening,
growing more vengeful.
Scene 4: Mosul. Watson’s
death-wish takes him to war-torn Mosul in Iraq, where, while photographing a
wounded student, he is attacked by a mob. He feels resignation, even elation at
apparent punishment he is about
to receive. Instead, he is saved by a small group of Iraqis. Amazed that he has
survived, he assumes it must be for some purpose. The haunting is not over. He
asks, “What will I do now that I’m alive?”
Scene 5: Phoenix. Watson flies
to Arizona intent on meeting Cleveland’s mother and begging her forgiveness. He
drives to her trailer park, but she’s not home. Back at the hotel he leaves a
message on her answering machine, and shortly receives a call from Cleveland’s
brother, who asks him to leave his mother alone. Watson tries to engage the
brother in conversation, asking him if the family hates him. The brother
responds that he hates how Watson has “stirred up the ghosts” again. The
brother says that Watson is not the one who killed his brother, not part of the
mob that dragged his brother through the streets. The brother recalls finding out
about Cleveland’s death and recognizing the body from Watson’s photograph.
Watson tells the brother how he believes he is literally haunted by Cleveland.
The brother suggests that perhaps Watson “owes” Cleveland something, but that
it’s not for the brother—or anyone else—to figure that out. The brother rather
abruptly takes his leave. Before the conversation ends Watson learns that the
brother’s name is Ray, the same name as Watson’s father. Before hanging up
Watson once again begs the mother’s forgiveness.
|Character List (Major):
Mother Anne (soprano)
Leon's Mother (soprano)
Yeti Mother (soprano)
The War Reporter:
Paul's inner voice (soprano)
Paul's inner voice (countertenor)
Paul's inner voice (tenor)
Paul Watson (baritone)
Cleveland's brother (bass)
(NY Times, LA Times, New Yorker, SF Chronicle)
‘Pierrot’ ensemble (fl, cl, pno, perc, string
Lyrical and expressive