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Hannah Lash’s Magic in a Night Garden

New York
Miller Theater, Columbia University
10/16/2019 -  & October 17*, 2019
Hannah Lash: Desire (World Premiere)
Kirsten Sollek (Woman), Daniel Moody (Man 1), Christopher Dylan Herbert (Man 2)
JACK Quartet: Christopher Otto, Austin Wulliman (violin), John Pickford Richards (viola), Jay Campbell (cello)
Rachel Dickstein (Director), Daniela Candillari (Music Director), Kristen Robinson (Set Designer), Kate Fry (Costume Designer), Jeanette Ok Suk Yew (Lighting Designer)

(© Rob Davidson)

The world premiere of Hannah Lash’s Desire, commissioned by the Miller Theatre at Columbia University, took place there this week. The stage is open. The setting by Kristen Robinson immediately catches our attention.

A bare birch limb, hanging upside down over a bed, tells us all before a note is either struck or sung. The lighting of the branch, which then redirects to the bed in a suspended room, with a wascolite ceiling that opens on an imaginary world beyond is just right. The bedroom is outlined against a garden, into which the Woman will walk. Here in her dreams, which song and music make real, she discovers the beauty that will allow creation to flower.

A tone poem chamber opera uses the voice to express a wide emotional range from anxiety, to surprise, to envy and even jealousy. A woman’s wish to enter a lush night world’s inspiration is imaginatively fulfilled. Night may provoke creativity. Multi media artist Laurie Anderson works at 3am, noting the messages she receives, and throwing out all but one gem. Night holds this kind of power, and Lash is in its thrall.

The double bed center stage, under a glass covered roof, exposing itself to the outside world and to the audience, suggests sterility. In a dream, and accompanied by dreamlike music, the woman steps out of bed and into a garden, which becomes lush with the voice of Man 1, a countertenor encountered in the shadows. We hear him although we are not sure he is there. Mystery and desire mix. Costumes are neutral and also open to a world which will happily impinge of the psyche.

The JACK Quartet sits on stage, an integral part of the production. There is no hiding in the creative process. Music and music makers alike are exposed. The string musicians are full of mystery and questioning as they bow blocks of sound which the voices crown. The blocks are delicate and yet rich in the strings of these frequent collaborators with Lash. Sometimes members of the quartet offer characteristic plucks, but often we hear smooth lines, which jagged abbreviations and string phrases punctuate.

The arc of the story moves the woman from the sterility of bed, to the lush atmosphere of the garden. She returns to her unsatisfactory home and may finally be released. Kirsten Sollek is a go-to mezzo for Lash. It is easy to see why in her rich interpretation of the role. She inflects her voice with desire, its frustration and its ultimate satisfaction, even if it is momentary. Daniel Moody as Man 1, the shadowy garden figure, comes to life in a beautifully shaped countertenor tones. The dry and frustrated Man 2, whose bed is not the answer to desire, is effectively sung by baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert.

The chamber opera is an open-ended read. While Lash has written that it was impelled by a creative crisis and the search for space in which the magic of insight and ideas collide, we are in a bedroom. The role of sexual relationships and creativity can be seen here. Bed is not enough. Few are able to do what Laurie Anderson and Barbara Hannigan seem to achieve: happy erotic lives that enhance their creativity. Bed dampens the woman in Desire. Only when she buries the bird her desire had found and then killed can a thousand bits of light emerge.

Staged tone poems are one approach to contemporary chamber opera and Desire succeeds in both engaging and entrancing.

Susan Hall



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