Paul Muldoon invited me in spring 2005 to serve for a second time as composer in residence for the Princeton Atelier, an inter-disciplinary program that he and Toni Morrison co-direct. For the first residency, in fall 1998, I created a course called "From Art Song to Parola Scenica." Six singers, six poets, and six composers auditioned to undertake an elaborate regime that required everyone to collaborate with everyone else. Paul and I served as provocateurs and ringmasters. The second time around, we decided to create a chamber opera called The Antient Concert that would receive a staged "workshop première" at the semester's end by Princeton students, directed by themselves.
The story told by The Antient Concert (the opera that resulted) concerns itself with the 1904 Feis Ceoil competition recital on 27 August 1904 in the Antient Concert Rooms in Dublin, Ireland. Legend has it that John McCormack and James Joyce competed that night in the Tenor singing competition. There is no documentary evidence of this; however, Joyce did win the Bronze Medal that year (it is said that he did not agree with the stipulation that competitors demonstrate their musicianship by doing some sight-reading, and left the stage). Many believe it was McCormack's 1903 win of the Gold Medal that launched his career.
It was our slender Capriccio. Paul did not know the Strauss opera, so I conceived of the thing from the start the way Strauss described his domestic bagatelle-Ein Bürgerliche Komödie (a "bourgeois comedy"). For the purpose of telling a story about the collision of words, music, performance, sex, death, and nationalism, we chose five traditional ballads that Joyce and McCormack could conceivably have performed that evening, and used them as the musical and textual foundation upon which the piece is built. Consequently, throughout the recital, the characters shift between "performance mode" and the expression of their internal thoughts.
Once Paul had the original lyrics of the songs we had chosen in hand, he was free to write whatever he pleased. The lyrics would serve to generate his libretto just as the tunes would generate my score. Paul conceived of the piece as a torso, the first act of a larger piece that would involve Samuel Becket as a character in the second act-much the same as Vera had been conceived as part of a triptych that would in the end consist of Six Honest Serving Men, Vera of Las Vegas, and Grand Concourse. The words of Six had already been published long before; Vera was finished; we finished together the hair-raising treatment of Concourse, which centered on the 9-11 tragedy, but have never fleshed it out and musicalized it.
Once Antient had been staged, I shared it with a number of stage directors and producers. All felt it stood well alone; all thought that more along the same lines would be too much. I do not agree that more would be too much, but I do agree that Antient stood alone very well. I am not opposed to completing a second act, but I am content to have allowed Carl Fischer to publish the torso, which I dedicated to Paul.
I finished the vocal score in February 2005 and immediately began orchestrating it for string quartet. It seemed clear as I did so that the ideal venue for a première was not the Berlind Theater in Princeton (where I conducted the staged workshop with the Borromeo String Quartet, which I had hired for the occasion, on 17 April 2005) but in a private club, with piano accompaniment. Although satisfied with the workshop staging, I felt the proscenium frame defused whatever confrontational elements the words and music might have. The broadcast première, live from Symphony Space in New York on Bloomsday 2007 as centerpiece of the annual festival there, interested a number of producers, one of whom suggested that I stage it at the Century Association. In November 2007 I did, and felt as though the piece finally played exactly as I intended it.
I subtitled Antient "a Dramatic Recital for Four Singers," but suspect it may be most effective of all staged in a cozy Irish pub anywhere in the world-the one in Venice just off of the Piazza San Marco would be perfect, for example. The audience must be slightly stoned, the piano must be slightly out of tune, and the singers, moving amongst and interacting with the patrons, must be fearless. For more information about the Antient Concert, please click here.
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