"The finale [of Shining Brow] is as devastating as anything in opera. At Wednesday's premiere, given by the Madison Opera, 2,200 at the Oscar Mayer Theater were so quiet that baritone Michael Sokol, who played Wright, could bring his closing aria down to a murmur.
The power of the finale comes from more than subject matter. It does not merely press emotional buttons. It moves us because theatrical and emotional logic accumulate over 21/2 hours of music, words and action.
A great strength of this piece (and a rarity in opera) is its complexity of character. People drift off in soliloquy, they contradict themselves, they quote other characters without realizing it.
That is, they think and act like real people, with all the social and personal chaos that suggests. The miracle of Shining Brow is that such a taut and gripping form rises from such chaos.
Form follows feeling. Musical motives and keys associated with characters and situations rise from the flow and take on meaning and resonance parallel to the text repetitions. And those motives and keys overlap to make dramatic conflict live in musical sound.
Hagen's baseline idiom seems to be modernist-expressionist, tonal but freely dissonant. He sets all sorts of influences, from barbershop to ticky-tick dance music against that idiom, to underscore character and crystallize the period (1903-'14). Wright and the chorus of draftsmen sing in a sort of Romantic Anglican church style, which the draftsmen satirize behind Wright's back. The same goes for the spacious, Copland-Americana song of the construction workers.
In the finale, when the Maid undercuts Wright's lament with a song like a mouth full of nails, we remember how amusingly he was undercut earlier. The contrast touches us all the more deeply.
This fine new opera, this Shining Brow, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Friday and 2:30 pm Sundayhttp://daronhagen.com/brow." - Tom Strini The Milwaukee Journal 4/22/93
"Madison Opera has come up a winner in the tricky business of commissioning operas: Daron Hagen and Paul Muldoon, composer and librettist of the exciting new Shining Brow, neither of whom has written an opera before, bring fresh ideas to their work - based on an incident in the life of Frank Lloyd Wright. The great American architect and Taliesin (Welsh for Shining Brow), the home he built for himself in Wisconsin, share the center of the story. The remarkable quality of Muldoon's libretto is quickly evidenthttp://daronhagen.com/brow.
Like Dominick Argento, Hagen writes particularly well for the voice. The vocal burden falls on Wright - a plummy role for lyric baritone, marvelously sung and acted by Michael Sokol - and Mamah, a no less juicy spinto soprano role, beautifully realized by velvet-toned Carolann Page. Each of these characters has an affecting soliloquy, splendidly crafted to display a huge emotional and vocal range, and each singer made the most of the opportunity.
A full, enthusiastic house closed the production (April 25) with a standing ovation." - John Koopman, Opera News, November 1993
Hagen can also use musical quotations from the past wittily without sounding opportunistic. The word "Utopia," for example, is punched at you suddenly on the notes of "Suburbia" from Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti, a motif that Bernstein himself lifted from the opening phrase of "New York, New York" in his own On the Town. The homage is appropriate since Hagen got much advice from Bernstein and dedicated Shining Brow to his memory.
And it's only justice that Hagen zeroed in on that chronic self-borrower, Richard Strauss, to construct a party-scene trio of on-stage piano, violin, and cello and occupy them with a chain of variations (including ersatz-jazz segments) on a couple [sic] of tunes from Der Rosenkavalier. Furthermore, Hagen wasn't above musicalizing some loud-mouthed reporters as a barbershop quartet. (He hopes for good reviews?)
[Late in the opera, Wright and Sullivan] meet for a painful reconciliation; they stand motionless and leave it to the orchestra to pour out softly Hagen's most moving music. The show was an event." - Leighton Kerner, The Village Voice 5/5/93
"Commissioning new work is risky business, for even the largest and most established opera companies. But American opera is on a roll http://daronhagen.com/brow. Shining Brow proved to be an absorbing, beautiful staged work.
Sullivan's design maxim, "Form follows function," was evoked throughout the opera. But Hagen's spare, evocative score demonstrated the truth of another famous architect's rule, Mies van der Rohe's "Less is more," The orchestral writing was austere and carefully placed as the beams in Wright's homes.
Hagen and Muldoon managed to turn a debate about order in the universe into a riveting operatic scene." - Wynne Delacoma, Chicago Sun-Times 4/23/93
"This [is a] stunning new American opera. The music is splendid with haunting tonal intensity, and as down to earth as a barbershop quartet." - Kathleen Tobin, The Beverly Review, Chicago 8/13/97
"Its unnerving impact brings to mind [Gian Carlo] Menotti's The Medium. To ease the tension before the catastrophic events, a delightful barbershop quartet, in razor-sharp tune, gives a tour of world events from 1912 to early 1914." - Walter Skiba, The Illinois Times, Lansing, Indiana 7/30/97
"[Shining Brow] is a daring venture on the part of several bright young talents. The entire enterprise exuded intelligence. Mr. Hagen has a gift for the big tune, and he serves up some beauties in the choruses, evoking the blues and a Colonial hymn. Mr. Hagen is most interesting when he assaults the ear roundly or falls squarely back on tradition. The musical texture is well varied and consistently engaging.
Mr. Muldoon's libretto and Mr. Birn's design, excellent and involving in themselves, accord well with Mr. Hagen's style. One scene in particular, evoking a disastrous news conference held by Wright on Christmas 1911 to explain his relationship to Cheney despite his continuing marriage to Catherine, was utterly brilliant." - James R. Oestreich, The New York Times 4/28/93
Shining Brow offers further evidence that the salvation of American opera will come not necessarily from the big East Coast companies but from enterprising regional theaters like Madison's. One hopes other companies will mount productions of their own." -John Von Rhein, American Record Guide, July/August 1993
The work is a natural for the Chicago Lyric Opera's "21st Century" program. It is an opera any major opera company could present with pride." - John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune 4/23/93
Mr. Hagen is a wizard at ornamentation, at form without function, at rhapsodic revellings in rhapsodic Strauss, at A-minor monologues, at perky orchestration, at blues and hymn and barbershop." - Paul Griffiths, The New Yorker 5/17/93
Shining Brow is a considerable artistic achievement of uncompromising seriousness - one which found favor with those Wright admirers with whom I spoke for its accurate picture of some unlikely events.
Hagen's compositional ability is a decided asset. He is, first of all, an exceptional orchestrator, and the variety of sounds from the pit - from full orchestra to combination of instruments -- attests to an extremely acute ear for sonority.
One hopes that Shining Brow will be heard again." - Patrick Smith, The Times Literary Supplement 5/15/93
More to the point, it is that rarest of all finds: an enduring piece of contemporary repertoire, something you will eventually see on recordings and in other productions. It would not be a surprise to see, for example, PBS put a production on the TV series "American Masters" or "Great Performances." - Jacob Stockinger, The Capital Times 5/6/93
Scored for a large orchestra, the work is prodigious. The sheer emotional intensity of the characters and their painful, complex circumstances make it seem longer than it is; there's little happiness in Shining Brow.
To my ear, the best music was Sullivan's. He is truly a tragic figure, lost in loneliness, surpassed in fame by Wright, and consigned by fate to drown himself in brandy.[The singer who portrayed Sullivan] Barry Busse's bows were greeted by sustained shouts of "'Bravo!' from all over the house, including one from me.
It is a great work." - Jess Anderson, Madison Wisconsin Isthmus 4/30/93
Shining Brow is one of the most important American operas of the past decade. Don't miss it."- John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune 7/27/97
"Just as Wright's seemingly simple houses expressed a far-reaching philosophy of architecture, so are Hagen and Muldoon interested in more than operatic pot-boiling. Shining Brow explores serious issues - the relationship of artist and muse, artist and mentor, the artist's place in society. Moving between the racy plot and extended moments of poetic philosophizing, the opera offers listeners a rigorous, ultimately rewarding, night at the opera.
"Hagen's score, with its unsettled solo melodies, dramatic orchestration and off-kilter passages, reflects Wright's life superbly. Hagen scaled down the forces for COT's 36-piece orchestra but lost none of the color that made the opera's premiere at the Madison (Wis.) Opera so compelling. When a broken, dispirited Sullivan, affectingly sung by tenor Barry Busse, wandered the stage in the second act, a solo cello melody accompanied him like a mournful shadow. A soft-shoe routine, spiked by dissonances and quirky rhythms, was exactly right for a quartet of cynical newsmen." - Wynne Delacoma, The Chicago Sun-Times 7/28/97
"Shining Brow, composer Daron Aric Hagen and librettist Paul Muldoon's 1993 opera, which had its local premiere in a brilliant new production by Chicago Opera Theater, explores the ambiguities that separated Wright's flamboyant public image from his darker private side mdash;.
"The libretto, which resonates with richly allusive poetry, merges seamlessly with the long, singable lines and fluid tonal centers of Hagen's score, newly reduced for COT music director Lawrence Rapchak's thirty-six piece orchestra. COT's production, directed by Ken Cazan and supervised by the composer, was more intimate, better at defining relationships than the world premiere at Madison Opera four years ago had been. The choral scenes that function as pillars supporting the action were especially well achieved.
"Robert Orth made a superb Wright, firmly sung and believably acted. The Yuletide press reception at which the architect defends his adulterous behavior showed what a commanding singing actor the baritone can be. Matching his strengths, soprano Brenda Harris deftly revealed the pain beneath Mamah's free-spirited facade. Tenor Barry Busse ... offered a believably weary, disillusioned Louis Sullivan, Wright's brandy-quaffing mentor. Bass Bradley Garvin and mezzo Kitt Reuter Foss were admirable as the discarded spouses, Edwin Cheney and Catherine Wright." - John Von Rhein, Opera News, 10/97
The two architects lived and worked at a time when the world was changing so fast that, looking back, it seems a blur. "Shining Brow," the opera by Daron Hagen about Wright's impressive array of midlife crises - which included a thorny professional relationship with Sullivan - captures this moment with close to perfect accuracy. Music can express what can't be said in words, or even in bricks and mortar.
Many people tend to avoid new music, fearing it is dissonant and jarring. Hagen's music is not. Except for a couple of shocking moments, it falls sweetly on the ears. The Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, especially, contributes lovely, carollike interludes. BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta moves the work along with a steady grace.
The references to the music of Wright's time are striking. An anguished cry mirrors a moment in Mahler's "Songs of a Wayfarer." The opera's second half includes a whimsical collage of the teens. A kind of barbershop quartet refers to historical events, from Geronimo to the Model T. A cafe pianist and violinist [Amy Glidden, the Philharmonic's associate concertmaster, fills the role charmingly] play a waltz. The charm is shockingly offset by the musical depiction of the murder of Wright's muse, Mamah, and her children at Taliesin. Hagen makes the orchestra instruments scream, and a haunting image appears on screen of flames and the shadow of a hand.
Baritone Robert Orth makes Wright a sympathetic figure. It's a glitch of casting that Robert Frankenberry, who plays his "Lieber Meister" [dear master] Sullivan, looks so much younger. Frankenberry threatens to steal the show. His clear tenor carries easily through the hall. The light-voiced Elaine Valby gives a touching portrayal of the abandoned Catherine Wright, and Brenda Harris gives Mamah an arresting intensity. Mamah's husband, Edwin, is sung by Matthew Curran, an excellent baritone. - Mary Kunz, Buffalo News, 11/5/06
"Shining Brow," Daron Hagen's opera about a tumultuous time in the life of Frank Lloyd Wright, ends with a tragedy. The love of Wright's life has just been massacred, along with most of their household. The architect stands on stage, dazed and alone, wondering how he will go forward.
This weekend, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra will be joined by a cast of singers for a semi-staged performance of that opera. Hagen will be in the audience, and as he loses himself again in the drama, he will almost certainly remember the emotions he felt after the first production, 15 years ago.
"What I will never forget is when Paul Muldoon, the librettist, and I were standing at the back rail, and the stage director, Stephen Wadsworth, he tapped me on the shoulder and he said, "You did that.' I said, "What?' He said, "Look around. They're all crying.' "
Hagen grows quiet, reliving the moment. "I said, "Good, that's what you want.' I realized here we were in the dark telling ghost stories.
"We were partaking in a ritual that goes back to the beginning of time," he says. "It's a communion. It's what the Catholic Church understands. That what makes Mass moving. It's the distillation of opera. What opera hopes to achieve is that communion."
Hagen, who has written four major operas, has been in town most of the week helping prepare the latest production of "Shining Brow."
Already, he's familiar with Buffalo from research he has done on Wright's architecture and also from Wright's ardent cult of fans, whom he hears from frequently.
JoAnn Falletta, who will be conducting the opera, stresses the beauty of its music.
"The opera is very romantic, neo-romantic," she says. "Daron Hagen went back to the kind of language that really speaks to people. It's very accessible, warm, beautiful music - lush, wonderfully written for voice."
Falletta is sure "Shining Brow" will speak to Buffalonians.
"It talks about Buffalo a lot," she says. "He never thought it would be coming to Buffalo, but it talks about his early life, houses he's building in Buffalo where one room flows into the next. He talks about the Darwin Martin house, which is eerie. He talks about his thorny relationship with Louis Sullivan," she adds, alluding to the great architect who built our Guaranty Building.
Hagen, 44, grew up in Wisconsin, not far from Taliesin, Wright's estate. He wrote the opera in the 1980s, coached by his composition teacher, Leonard Bernstein. (Hagen refers to him as "L.B.")
"Shining Brow" confronts Wright at what could be called the dramatic crossroads of his life. The opera's opening finds him beginning to break free from his mentor, Sullivan. His personal life is thrown into upheaval, too, when he meets Mamah, the woman for whom he would leave his wife.
When he wrote "Shining Brow," Hagen was fascinated by this turbulent point in Wright's life. The composer, who is married, was particularly drawn by Wright's struggles to balance his creativity with his family.
"Back then, I was giving a lot of time in my own life to thinking about what role a family plays in the life of a dedicated artist," he says. "To put that many people's lives in jeopardy because of your own personal and ethical decisions, that's great personal drama."
What words does Hagen have for all of us who will be seeing his opera for the first time?
Hagen pauses, pondering. "I would encourage you to take the journey with the characters," he says.
"It's my hope - and the librettist's, Paul Muldoon's - that at the end of the opera, people wind up thinking about the personal decisions all these people made. To me, that's the power of a great human drama like this, about the intersection between life and art. We don't answer any questions, but we do pose questions." -Mary Kunz, Buffalo News, 11/3/06
"The cast is uniformly excellent, Robert Orth convincingly egomaniacal and suitably rough in his portrayal while at the same time genuinely repentant (or at least emotionally affective) in the last moments. Brenda Harris is a wonderful Mamah Cheney, and the rest of the cast quite generous in their acting and vocal abilities. The sound is somewhat of a letdown; despite the acoustical properties of Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo the voices are too far forward and dominant of the orchestra. The chorus is generally good but not as sharp and resonant as others I have heard. The Philharmonic plays the music quite adeptly, with Maestro Falletta in possession of a commanding knowledge of the score that she imparts to all forces with rigorous authority. This piece has found an audience and doesn't need my approval or disapproval; perhaps seeing it in the theater would answer some of my lingering questions about it. For now, this recording is a milestone for a work that certainly deserves a hearing, and for which the public so far is inclined to accept. - Steven Ritter, Audiophile Audition, 8/27/2009
"It was in July 1989 that Daron Hagen was asked by the Madison Opera to write an opera about the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Together with the chosen librettist, Paul Muldoon, Hagen worked out a synopsis and set to work with the first act, which fizzed along without problems. The second act was tougher and he met Leonard Bernstein several times for guidance. Bernstein died in October 1990, before the opera was finished, and it is dedicated to his memory.
"Frank Lloyd Wright fell in love with a client's wife Mamah while outlining their house. They left their respective wife and husband, went to Europe. Eventually returning to the USA, they built a house in Wisconsin, Taliesin, which is Welsh for ‘Shining Brow'. In 1914, when Wright was in Chicago, his manservant murdered seven people in the house, including Mamah and her two children and then set the house on fire. Two survivors managed to put out the fire but the house was seriously damaged. This is essentially the story of the opera. Frank Lloyd Wright lived until 1959 and probably his most famous creation is the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
"Musically Hagen's score is a conglomerate of the manifold styles I referred to in his other works, but wholly efficient and personal. Shining Brow is a number opera with arias, choruses, orchestral numbers and ensembles. The music is very varied to mirror the dramatic and emotional contents of the story. The chorus of draftsmen (CD 1 tr. 2) has ‘go' and makes me think of Orff and Carmina burana. Wright's arietta (CD 1 tr. 5) is melodious and agreeable and his wife Catherine's aria (CD 1 tr. 6) has echoes of Broadway musical. The Sullivan Variations (CD 1 tr. 8) is hymn-like brass music and there is another chorus with plainsong character. In act II there is a barbershop quartet (CD 2 tr. 8) and the Canapé Variations (CD 2 tr. 9) is a long gossip scene at a cocktail party played against the waltz from Der Rosenkavalier. Initially there are quotations from the Presentation of the Silver Rose from the same opera. Symbolically this ‘theft' of another composer's music is a parallel to Wright's ‘theft' of another man's wife. Sullivan's arietta (CD 2 tr. 15) is a song that should be on many opera-lovers' list of the most beautiful opera arias. It is followed by an a cappella chorus that nods in the direction of Bernstein's Candide (the Westphalia chorus). The rhythmic elements are often very much in the foreground and there are no longueurs. To my mind this is a truly inspired and dramatically convincing opera and readers who prefer operas with melodies should know that there is a wealth of melodic inventiveness.
"The cast is a good one and several of the members have taken part in earlier productions, including Robert Orth as Frank Lloyd Wright and Brenda Harris as Mamah. They are both excellent and Robert Frankenberry as Wright's one-time mentor and friend Louis Sullivan sports a fine lyric tenor. The Buffalo forces are splendid and JoAnn Falletta brings out the dark dramatic side of the work as well as the lyrical music of which there is also a lot.
"The recording can't be faulted and the few stage noises only enhance the feeling of a real occasion. While writing the final paragraphs of this review I have been listening again to large portions of the opera and can report that it grows further with renewed acquaintance. The orchestration stands out as superbly varied, brilliant and expressive and the melodic material is organically interwoven with the story. The only regrettable thing is that there is no libretto available. We get only a synopsis that gives the outline but leaves you in limbo as far as detailed understanding is concerned.
"Anyway, relatively contemporary operas are rare guests in the record catalogues. Shining Brow, like Carlson's Anna Karenina that I reviewed a short while ago, are extremely valuable additions to a repertoire that far too seldom reaches beyond Puccini. Daron Hagen has no intention to challenge Puccini; he has his own musical world that is just as valid-and it shouldn't be less accessible to opera-lovers." - Göran Forsling, MusicWeb International, July, 2009
"Few living American composers have written more operas than Daron Hagen (six, at age 47), and among his most widely performed is the 1993 Shining Brow, about architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Imagining how it would work theatrically is difficult just from hearing the recording, but the ceaselessly inventive score hooks you early on, easily embracing a wide range of predominantly tonal modes of expression, from barbershop quartet to Der Rosenkavalier quotations. The music's theatrical timing and naturalistic sense of language-so problematic in other contemporary operas-feels effortlessly right. Dramatically speaking, the portrayal of the great architect is so unflinching that Wright (played with many layers of irony by the excellent Robert Orth) borders on being too unsympathetic to carry this sizable, two-act opera. Particularly effective is the musical creepiness that sets in as Wright's high-ego world grows refracted from reality. In many ways, this is an artist-as-monster portrait; such things need to be said, and some unstable but text-attentive vocalism in this mostly solid recording doesn't obscure what Hagen and librettist Paul Muldoon have so deftly projected." - David Patrick Stearns, The Philadelphia Inquirer, April, 2009
"Hagen's score - proudly eclectic, often elegiac, tonal but occasionally dissonant - incorporates contemporary allusions and popular forms (including dance and liturgical music). Unlike many contemporary composers, he writes singable vocal lines; the choral deployment is inventive, often droll. The brass writing is notably good.
"Robert Orth and Brenda Harris (here Wright and Mamah Cheney) are among America's most protean, skilled singing actors. They first tackled these demanding roles at Chicago Opera Theater in 1997. The ensuing decade cost some vocal freshness (Harris now tackles Norma and Roberto Devereux), but both give admirable performances with stretches of attractive tone. Orth, particularly, inflects English masterfully onto legato lines. The bass-baritone Matthew Curran makes a solid Edwin Cheney (whose marriage Wright ruins while building his house).
"Several participants here are frequent Hagen collaborators. Robert Frankenberry's lyric tenor is characterful and ductile if not conventionally dulcet; his superbly enunciated Sullivan, rather Vere-like musically, both comments on and takes part in events. Elaine Valby earns sympathy as Wright's long-suffering wife Catherine, though her mezzo varies in focus. Gilda Lyos's clear soprano compels admiration. Act 2 seems a shade long, but Shining Brow is affecting home listening, making one eagerly await new stagings." - David Shengold, Opera, UK, July, 2009
The libretto telescopes into two acts and six scenes the years 1903 to 1914, a period when Wright achieved fame not just for his Prairie Houses but for a very public extramarital affair conducted on both sides of the Atlantic with the wife of one of his clients. The opera's Act II includes a fire and seven offstage axe murders at Taliesin (literally, the Shining Brow of the title), Wright's famed headquarters and retreat. Along the way, Wright struggles with his relation to a mentor - a theme that apparently spoke to Hagen, who made the score a tribute to his own sometime teacher Leonard Bernstein. Tunes from Bernstein's musicals are everywhere in the opera, while a party scene is based on portions of Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. But rather than being a big identification game, the music flows along well enough on its own terms, with a regular underpinning of vague familiarity and western spaciousness.
While the blueprint of Hagen's score is elegant and strong, this performance might not earn a certificate of occupancy. The cast frequently seems under-rehearsed in Act I and especially insecure with pitch. Even the normally redoubtable baritone Robert Orth sounds occasionally tentative as Wright. Yet in his biggest aria, near the opening of Act II, Orth achieves a compelling mix of confession and defiance. Soprano Brenda Harris, as Wright's paramour, also rallies to bring Act I to a fine close. As she sings of resignation at her fate, the music is triumphant.
Conductor JoAnn Falletta's pacing never slackens and her orchestra generally sounds strong, especially the mighty low brass. But the chorus often can't seem to spit out all the lyrics, which are at times a total mystery: they are not included in the Naxos booklet, due to copyright restrictions. (Used copies of the libretto, which is out of print, can be searched for online but are not available through Naxos.) A kind of cowboy tune near the opening is carried well enough by the male voice to linger long in the ear. In another memorable ensemble number, a band of nosy reporters is played by a delightful barbershop quartet. - Joseph Dalton, Opera News, September 2009
Review: Summerfest’s ‘Shining Brow’ an impressive achievement