Arizona Opera’s president and general director Joseph Specter, and Zackery Hayhurst, director of artistic administration have brought together a thrilling team to mount the new “Taliesin West Version” of Shining Brow, the steadily-revived 1992 opera that Paul Muldoon and I first created for the Madison Opera. For their revival I have trimmed the opera by 20 minutes and eliminated the female chorus, in order to intensify the central story. Chas Rader-Shieber will direct, and Lidiya Yankovskaya will conduct; the costume and scenic designer will be Jacob A. Climer.
Performance dates in Phoenix are 27, 28, and 29 September; runout performances in Tucson take place on 5 and 6 October.
More information about Arizona Opera’s production, including cast and associated educational and outreach events here.
Technical specs, reviews, stills from various productions, and video excerpts here.
My essay (excerpted from my memoir, Duet with the Past) about writing Shining Brow with Paul Muldoon here.
Fallingwater’s page about Shining Brow here.
Buy the vocal score at ECS /Morningstar here.
Buy the libretto from Faber here.
ABOUT THE “TALIESIN WEST VERSION”
(This note will appear in the program for Arizona Opera’s production.)
I was an ambitious, selfish 29-year-old in a hurry when, in 1990, I began composing Shining Brow with the great Irish poet Paul Muldoon.
Not interested in creating a bio-pic, executing a take-down, or confecting a costume drama, we were, as artists in our 20s, taken with that early portion of Wright’s long career when his very public personal struggle between self-actuation and social responsibility appeared most acute. Undoubtedly, the famous love triangle with the Cheneys, his personal, professional, and artistic falling out with his mentor Louis Sullivan, and the catastrophic murders and conflagration at Taliesin were, seen from the safe vantage point of nearly a century, ripe for operatic treatment.
Importantly, we created operatic characters freely based on actual historical figures. As they must, these operatic characters took on a life of their own. Anyone craving reportage will have to look elsewhere, I’m afraid.
The character of Wright, the center of the social upheaval his selfish treatment of others creates, is nearly unworthy of love as a man at the opera’s start; by the end, hubris has been for the moment curbed, he is worthy of our compassion, if not pity, and he may (or may not) be poised to launch into the greatest work of his career. Mamah Cheney’s feminism is inspiring; the bravery of her move to Berlin despite the bonds of motherhood and marriage to Edwin is heroic. That her personal transit appears to be that she ends up as “a codicil to Wright’s iron will” is more than tragic; she is too intelligent and self-aware to be simply a victim.
Her husband Edwin and Wright’s wife Catherine are simply good people; they seem to live their upper-class midwestern bourgeois lives at a safer, slower pace than do Mamah and Frank. One senses that their narratives, however moving, will go on—children will be raised, mortgages paid, social norms will in time reassert themselves.
Functioning somehow above his relationship with even Mamah is Wright’s struggle to come to grips with his mentor and progenitor, Louis Sullivan. Wright would like to think he’s searching for rapprochement, but in fact he cannot resist the reflexive urge to overcome Sullivan. Portrayed as an introverted alcoholic, Sullivan is the opposite of his exuberantly outgoing protégé. Wright’s dignity derives from his understanding, deep down, that he doesn’t “get” Sullivan, but knows that he has to keep trying.
There is a Maid whose deus ex machina role as a Fury signals that we’ve gone over to a deeper, darker poetic reality, one in which we’re compelled to deal with the terrifying work of the Chef.
Standing resolutely aside from any dialectic about gender roles, race, class, and social responsibility is a blurry “essence quorum of souls’ intensities” (paraphrasing Allan Gurganus) that we give shape to in the character of the Chef. It would be too easy to describe his behavior as a karmic manifestation of “what is wrong” at Taliesin; he’s not an anti-hero, he’s a man who has become untethered entirely from the framework. There he stands, uttering (he doesn’t sing; he mustn’t sing) a terrifying manifesto cobbled together from garbled fragments of Amergin and a dozen other cries of pain.
Thirty years later, I identify with Edwin Cheney and his “little potsherd” rather than Wright and his “Promethean boulder.” Asked to compose Shining Brow now, I’d create a very different narrative, but the central argument about the secular humanistic struggle between art and life would remain, because it grapples with the human existential questions—what role does faith play, and what is faith in our time? Mr. Wright struggled with them, as we do today.
—Daron Hagen, August 2019