17 December 2011
The opera THE GIVER, commissioned by the Kansas City Lyric Opera and the Minnesota Opera Company and composed by Susan Kander, will have its world premiere in Kansas City in January 2012 (and will be perfomed in April in St. Paul, MN) The composer has written this "program note" (background information which will appear in the program) I think you'll be able to tell, reading it, what an exciting event this is going to be!
Ask anyone under age 28 about The Giver and you’ll get a strong response. For many young people, The Giver is the first book they read that truly talks up to them. It demands a level of both outward observation and inward reflection that is new and, judging from the passion so many feel for the book, thrilling. Why was it so clear to me the book wanted to be an opera? First and last, it is filled with musical moments. Every time the Giver transmits a memory to Jonas there is an outpouring of descriptive text crying out to be turned into orchestral music. There is no stage action: only music. Every time Jonas has a moment of reflection or realization, this is the expression of the inner voice that is the very stuff of opera. The characters each have utterly distinct voices – including Mother, Father, Lily, Fiona, Asher - who sang to me in distinct rhythms and styles. The vagaries of the story itself, its largeness and opacity, the fact that much about The Community is not articulated, the continuous thread of question marks for both Jonas and the audience, all these are made to order for dramatic music theater.
What the Giver does not have that I needed for this adaptation was a large role for Chorus. So I invented one. Or rather, I went back in time to create a piece of theater that the ancient Greeks would find completely familiar. When we read the novel, we assume – though Lois Lowry never explicitly states – that the story is set in the nebulous future. But this is just an assumption. So I have chosen to set the story in the nebulous past. Today is the one day each year that this cautionary story is retold “to our children, to our children’s children.” The Telling, as it is called in the opera, is done by a Greek-style Chorus. Just as in Euripides, the Chorus frames the narrative we are about to witness; it reveals the thoughts of the characters to us; it discusses events and characters amongst itself, even to the point of squabbling; it entertains us; it carries the action forward, sometimes even physically; it sets the stage and creates theatrical effects; it provides the actor/singers for all but the principal roles.
One last little note: Ms. Lowry planted a little throw-away bit in the story that was a sparkling gift to a composer. During his training, Jonas asks the Giver, When you were my age, “did you see beyond like me?” And the Giver says, very simply, “No. I heard beyond,” and they move on to other things. Well, the fact that the Giver retains musical memories was just too compelling to pass up. I had a lot of fun with Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (keep your ear on the Community’s ‘Patriotic Hymn’.) Listen also for Mozart’s Voi ché sapete, a bit of Schumann’s Märchenbilder, a little Brahms Symphony #2, and a beautiful American folk song. Some are obvious, some not so much. Thank you, Ms. Lowry, for agreeing with me that music is part of what makes us human.