LISTENING POST: Deux Opéras de la Pandémie
Necessity being the mother of invention, the coronavirus pandemic is one hell of an innovation accelerant. Nearly every form of human endeavor has been disrupted in some way, forcing a reimagining of what and how things get done. Presented here for consideration are two examples in support of the premise drawn from the realm of opera.
On the morning of New Year’s Day 2018, Atlanta musician and composer Jeff Crompton, best known as leader of the Edgewood Saxophone Trio and other adventures in jazz, woke up thinking, “I’m going to write an opera.” Crompton had two ideas in mind. The one he acted upon is the story of Buddy Bolden, a tragic figure of legendary proportions in the chronicle of jazz history.
Born in New Orleans in 1877, Charles “Buddy” Bolden was a cornetist and bandleader credited by many historians with playing a — if not the — catalytic role in the evolution of a uniquely American art form. Bolden’s stature is all the more remarkable considering that the musician Jelly Roll Morton described as wielding “the most powerful trumpet in the world” earned his place in the pantheon on the basis of a brief career, which spanned a handful of years, leading up to his committal at age 29, certified by his mother, to the then-named Louisiana State Insane Asylum. There, Bolden was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic (in today’s parlance) and died in 1931. Compounding the extraordinary aspects of his biography is the fact that credible information about Bolden’s exploits is scarce, and no recording exists of “the King” of New Orleans playing music.
Originally conceived as a chamber opera in five scenes for five performers and saxophone trio, Crompton’s Buddy Bolden became something else when, in the spring, COVID restrictions prompted the composer and librettist to scratch rehearsals, which were slated to begin in May. Also put on hold were plans for a staged premiere this fall at the First Existentialist Congregation in Candler Park.
While Crompton still plans on producing Buddy Bolden as a fully fledged chamber opera, for the last few months, the project followed a largely unblazed trail and in due course morphed into a viable artistic entity in its own right. On Friday, October 16, Buddy Bolden will debut online as an operatic work conceived for video, accessible on YouTube, and at www.buddyboldenopera.com. Links and information will also be available on the project’s Facebook page.
Over burgers and beverages at an outdoor café where applicable social distancing guidelines were observed, Listening Post recently sat down with Crompton to discuss the two-years-plus odyssey of Buddy Bolden.
Listening Post: What were you thinking when you decided to write an opera about Buddy Bolden?
Jeff Crompton: I wanted to explore Buddy Bolden the musician, how his mental decline affected the people around him, and the sadness of having a genius who created this new music spend 25 years in what was then called an insane asylum.
With so much of Bolden’s life lost to posterity and obscured by mythical constructions, how did you go about sifting through the rubble to find your Buddy Bolden?
I discovered jazz when I was 15. Not only was I trying to figure out how to play it, I was reading everything I could get my hands on. I don’t remember what the first book was, but it said Buddy Bolden was the first guy to put together these various strands of music and create what we called jazz. My first reaction was, “That’s bullshit.” How can you pin down and assign something so complex to one person?
But then, as I read interviews with people who were on the ground at the time, although interviewed later in their lives, the comments were almost unanimous. They said Bolden was the first guy to put it together. Lending weight to some of those accounts was the fact that some of his peers were not happy about it. They did not approve of the change.
When Peter Bocage, a New Orleans trumpet player who was a little younger than Buddy, says, “Bolden started all that!” you can almost hear the disdain jumping off the page. Bocage would have been happy to continue playing written music nicely and precisely for the rest of his life.
How did you begin the process of turning an idea into an opera, let alone a jazz opera?
I sketched out a story before writing the music. I had a few ideas about certain scenes, high points I wanted to hit. Scene 1 starts out sounding like a standard, contemporary classical piece of music, until it gets to an abstraction of Bolden’s band playing, which is a weird ragtime blues thing.
I wanted the music for each scene and each section within the scene to represent the emotional feeling of the characters in the story, sometimes in an abstract way. The music is all over the place in this opera. There’s abstract blues, some screaming saxophone improvisations, and some nice melodies.
Did you start out with the idea of the music being performed by a saxophone trio?
Right away, I realized I cannot write a grand opera with a lot of parts and for an orchestra. I know what the Edgewood guys can do. We’ve played together for 10 years. I knew I could make the trio sound full, like all the orchestra we needed.
It was intentional to limit the number of voices to five singing parts. If the opera is ever staged, it’s optional to have a chorus. Even in its present form, the chorus is kind of represented by “Louis” and “Beatrice” who are two Buddy Bolden fans (performed by Sheldon Michael and Audrey Gámez – ed.). They sing his praises and even sing “Funky Butt,” his most famous song, in one section.
In many ways, Buddy Bolden follows conventional norms and structure. Musically, dramatically, in terms of characters and plot, it’s a standard opera, albeit compressed by design. Do you listen to a lot of opera?
I went through a stressful period in the 1990s when opera became extremely important to me. It’s such strong emotional music, which is what I needed. Mozart’s Don Giovanni is one of my favorite operas, also Wozzeck by Anton Berg. More recently, I’ve discover how wonderful Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress is.
How did you go about assembling a cast?
Jayme Alilaw, who sings Alice Bolden, Buddy’s mother, was recommended by the only opera singer I know, Audrey Gámez, the girlfriend of Christo Case, a pianist and former bandmate. Jayme quickly turned into much more than ‘my soprano.’ She became my chief advisor.
Jayme put together the cast from people she knows, including Marcus Hopkins-Turner who plays Buddy Bolden. When the pandemic started, she said to me, “Singing in close proximity is one of the most dangerous things you can do. We are not going to do this as planned. But can we get it on the internet?”
Her question lit the spark to do it the way we’re doing it. Also, I was inspired by the COVID Cello Project in which my sister-in-law participates. Tony Rogers, a musician from Austin, Texas, arranges music for a group of cello players from all over the world. They play a chosen piece ‘together,’ remotely. It looks like a Zoom meeting, but everything is nicely mixed and produced.
At that point, you’re creating a new type of opera.
By the time COVID came along, we had the entire cast except for one part. My original idea was to buy some video editing software and do it myself. I set up a recording studio in my house for the Edgewood Saxophone Trio. We recorded one part at a time, then overdubbed everything, for safety’s sake. That was enough of a learning curve. I didn’t want to add to that.
For the singers, I had already sent out computer-generated sound files with synthesized saxophones and vocal lines — without lyrics. When they got the libretto, that’s when they learned their parts. They did an incredible job.
The presentation is so stark. One singer, facing the camera, with minimal makeup and costuming, and no staging. The effect is highly unusual and completely riveting.
I am a person who is full of artistic self-doubt. Since we never had a rehearsal or a reading, there came a point when I had just about decided this opera thing was crap, the whole project was a terrible idea. Then, Marcus and Jayme sent their first videos. Blake Helton, my video editor, edited them and sent them to me.
Here’s Jayme, in this kind of cold presentation — standing in a room in her house, looking into a cellphone and singing — and she’s acting the whole time. Every gesture, every facial expression, is perfectly matched with the music and the libretto. I about started crying. I thought, “Oh my God. They brought this thing to life.” It’s a cliché, but that’s what they did.
It’s hard to imagine a better choice for the part of Buddy Bolden than Marcus Hopkins-Turner.
Marcus’ performance is a little more subtle than Jayme’s. He’s pretty much standing there, singing, and not acting as much. But the authority with which he sings immediately gets you. The way he chooses to pronounce the words, he convinces you that’s the way Buddy Bolden talked. For all of Buddy’s mental problems, he was apparently supremely confident as a musician and knew exactly what he wanted to do musically. You hear that confidence and intelligence in Marcus’ voice.
I’ve only met Marcus once. He’s a big, imposing guy. We participated in a social justice march downtown, which he organized. Needless to say, he commanded the microphone.
In the final scene, we see an unidentified character reading from medical documents describing Bolden’s deteriorated mental state, then Jayme sings from a letter penned by Alice Bolden, pleading for an update on her son’s condition. We also see images of the asylum grounds and interior. The music and imagery vividly evoke a dark, wrenching experience.
We found photographic images on the internet, public domain, all from what’s now called the East Louisiana State Hospital, in Jackson. Blake did an amazing job weaving them into the mix. When Jimmy Royals, who I played with in a band years ago — that’s how I knew his voice would be perfect for the part — reads that document, the camera zooms in on a man strapped to a bed. The overall effect is horrifying.
When you started writing Buddy Bolden, Black Lives Matter as a rallying cry and mass social movement did not exist. Now that the opera is heading for a virtual premiere, the timing could not be more auspicious.
Of course, I didn’t think about that when I was composing. Buddy Bolden is about a Black genius. As an old white musician, I feel compelled to collaborate with Black musicians, which in recent years I’ve made a point of doing.
The way we’re presenting this opera — call it “an enhanced opera” — was born of necessity, a second choice. Yet, in some way, I’m more excited about this version. Now, instead of premiering Buddy Bolden to a couple of hundred people in Atlanta, anyone, anywhere, will be able to see it anytime they choose.
The coronavirus pandemic does not discriminate between small independent productions, such as Jeff Crompton’s Buddy Bolden project (see above), and the rarefied province of nationally and internationally staged grand opera. After rescheduling the 2020-21 season including the mini-Puccini Festival, to 2021-22, due to health and safety concerns, the Atlanta Opera recently announced an imaginative approach to producing world-class opera in a public setting for restricted audiences.
The Molly Blank Big Tent Series will be performed in a custom-made tent without walls, erected on Anderson Field in Hermance Stadium on the Oglethorpe University campus in Brookhaven. The setup will allow fresh air to waft over the venue while providing audiences with protection from inclement weather. The venue will accommodate up to 240 audience members seated at socially distanced table pods.
The Big Tent Series, which encompasses six productions, opens on October 22 with Ruggero Leoncavallo’s iconic Pagliacci performed in repertory, paired with The Kaiser of Atlantis. Each production will be staged nine times, alternating nightly, for a total of 18 performances.
Even though the production of Pagliacci is a new project, directed by Atlanta Opera general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun, the work, which is perennially one of the world’s most performed operas, needs no introduction here. Not so much with The Kaiser of Atlantis, which is a satire of Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich composed by Viktor Ullmann with a libretto by Peter Kien while the two men were imprisoned at Theresienstadt concentration camp during World War II.
As described in the online Holocaust Encyclopedia, Theresienstadt was “a ghetto-labor camp. The SS deported and then incarcerated there certain categories of German, Austrian, and Czech Jews, based on their age, disability as a result of past military service, or domestic celebrity in the arts and other cultural life.” Unsurprisingly, performances of The Kaiser of Atlantis were prohibited by the Nazis. The manuscripts were shelved until 1975, when they were rediscovered and given a world premiere by the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam.
To discuss the adventurous Atlanta Opera season under the Big Top, Listening Post conducted an interview via email with Tomer Zvulun, the company’s Carl W. Knobloch, Jr. General & Artistic Director.
Listening Post: Whose idea was the Big Tent Series?
Tomer Zvulun: As the realities of COVID came into focus for our business, our senior team and board had many serious discussions about how to proceed. Do we go dark and weather the storm or do we find an alternative? “Reimagining Opera” is literally the vision of our strategic plan. We had to try. So, once that decision was made, the creative part fell into place.
We needed a safe venue, and the idea of Pagliacci in a tent just made sense, both creatively and in terms what people need right now to feel secure, which is doing something in the outdoors. As long as we prioritized safety, found the right location, and had the performers to accomplish it, the tent gave us the right options and flexibility.
How did Oglethorpe University come into play?
We performed at the Conant (Performing Arts) Center in 2015 and had a great experience. A board member reconnected us. The team at Oglethorpe have been amazing partners. They understood what we were going for immediately.
How or why was The Kaiser of Atlantis chosen for the series?
This piece means a lot to me. One of my mentors helped to create the world premiere of it in 1975. Kaiser is an unappreciated and powerful masterpiece. The fact that it was written during a time when the entire world was upside down at war — there is a similar resonance right now. Showing how art is influenced by the political zeitgeist is a prominent theme. In the dramatic world of Kaiser, artists cannot perform, which is a situation we understand well.
Do you anticipate the audience drawing parallels between Ullman’s opera and current events?
Absolutely, but the detail and the interpretation will be personal to the audience. We’re embracing the dystopian aspect of life right now. Everything is strange. We’ve embraced that in our approach. We’re drawing inspiration from George Orwell’s 1984.
Both from a practical and creative standpoint, how has your approach evolved from the initial challenge to finished (or nearly finished) production?
We have chosen to embrace the pandemic and weave it into the fabric of the story. We won’t ignore the fact of social distancing and all the change that imposes on our volatile world. Pagliacci is verismo opera, which means “slice of life.” In a way, it requires acknowledging the zeitgeist so that art imitates life and vice versa.
What will Big Tent audiences see that they have never seen before?
The audience has been deprived of live performances for eight months. There’s no replacement. The fact that we have found a way to create an escape (the circus!) presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Couple that with the idea that this is happening in an unusual environment with some the greatest singers in the world — we are embracing those circumstances.
I understand “details to come,” but is there anything about the 2021-22 season that can be confirmed?
We are exploring locations right now. We are committed to four more productions in March and May of 2021, and we have thematic ideas in addition to the circus for the fall. We like the idea of an ale house or dingy tavern where people from the fringes of society gather. The other is more hopeful and built upon renewal; we are inspired by mythology and thinking about a colorful fantasy world that will be perfect in springtime.
Are there any productions canceled because of COVID which you know will or will not be presented?
Our intention is to present the entirety of our original 2020-21 season in 2021-22, which includes the Discoveries series of performances and Madama Butterfly. That said, time has collapsed since COVID. Every day brings new information, so we will go back if we can — and if we can’t, we will have the capability of performing in the tent.
Safety protocols and procedures for the Atlanta Opera’s Big Tent Series were developed by a health and safety advisory task force of epidemiologists, public health specialists, and doctors. Task force members include Dr. Carlos del Rio, the Hubert professor and chair of the Department of Global Health and professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Emory University, and John Haupert, president and CEO of Atlanta’s Grady Health System and vice chair of Georgia’s Department of Public Health.
Tickets for the fall productions can be purchased online at www.atlantaopera.org or by calling 404-881-8885. Individual Circle Pod pricing includes seating for up to four people, with ticket prices starting at $149 per pod. Availability is limited due to capacity constraints and social distancing requirements.
All six Big Tent productions will be captured digitally with the intention to share films of the performances with broader audiences. Digital subscriptions, which include all six productions and exclusive behind the scenes content, are available for $99 for the year ($50 for current Atlanta Opera subscribers).