Monday, November 23, 2015

Looking Back on In the Penal Colony: Feedback and Reviews

As we approach the holiday season, let's take a moment to look back on our seventh Opera Annex production, In the Penal Colony by Philip Glass. Staged in the historic Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts, this unique, dark, and unsettling production left an indelible mark on critics, students, and audience members alike.

“The stage pictures and imagery of every moment [were] astounding and heart-clenching.”
– A. Alexander, MIT student

“Excellent performances … this newest production will be counted as another in [BLO’s] column of successes.”
Boston Globe

“I was struck by the powerful string instruments and by the poignant theme. I am a new convert now against the death penalty. It's hard to explain, but this opera has broadened my views on that subject.  Thanks for giving the opportunity to expand my mind. I hope I can do the same for my students.”
– Boston Public Schools educator

“As part of its imaginative Opera Annex program, Boston Lyric Opera upended convention even further by putting the piece on in the Boston Cyclorama ... [T]his cavernous space, cleverly treated with absorptive materials as part of the set design, proved ideally resonant for voices and instruments, luring the audience into the opera’s ghoulish spell.”
Wall Street Journal

“I really enjoyed the opera and it really was unforgettable. I wasn't expecting it to be an opera so I was really surprised when the actors started singing. The lyrics on the screen was a great way to keep the audience focused. It also worked well when the Officer was struggling with his emotions inside him and the machine breaking down. I first thought the screen itself was not functioning well but soon realized that it was part of the theater. It was amazing.”
– M. Saito, Boston College student

“Captivating … very well presented, very well sung.”

“Unforgettable … a true triumph in the company’s history.”
South Shore Critic

All photos by T. Charles Erickson for Boston Lyric Opera.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

In the Penal Colony: A Sneak Peek!

Check out this special SNEAK PEEK from Monday evening's Dress Rehearsal for In the Penal Colony! This Season's Opera Annex production, staged in the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts, is pitch-black fable about crime … and a very unusual punishment.

November 11–15 | 2015
The Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts

Boston Lyric Opera’s new “Opera Annex” production of Philip Glass’s dystopian In the Penal Colony, based on the Franz Kafka short story, has transformed the historic Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts into a terrifying torture machine at the heart of the drama. Pictured (l.r.) are David McFerrin as The Officer and Neal Ferreira as The Visitor. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

Neal Ferreira as The Visitor faces the terrifying presence of The Officer. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

David McFerrin as The Officer threatens Yury Yanowsky as the Man.
Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

Yury Yanowsky as the Man, Neal Ferreira as The Visitor, and David McFerrin as The Officer.
Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The “Real” Devil's Island

By John Conklin, BLO Artistic Advisor

In his short story "In the Penal Colony," it is often accepted that Kafka was referencing (in his usual slightly oblique and ambiguous manner) the actual French penal settlements (usually referred to in the singular as Devil's Island) in French Guiana. In the story, a reference is made to the "tropics," and the Officer and the Traveler (or "Visitor" or "Explorer," as he is described in various translations) speak in French. But the landscape is described by Kafka as barren, rocky, and desert, rather than the actual (ironically) lush rainforest environment of Guiana—and it is also mentioned that the other characters in the story (the Soldier and the Prisoner) do not understand French (odd, considering they are both part of the military establishment). So like other locations in Kafka's disturbingly unhinged world, the penal colony is both terrifyingly real and suggestively mythic—just as the "real" Devil's Island was an actual place which has assumed mythic proportions in our cultural imagination.

The penal colony of Cayenne was opened in 1852 and used for the exile of French political prisoners, mixed with the most hardened thieves and murderers, until the system was closed down in 1953. It was notorious for its desperate isolation, both physical and mental, the unceasing brutality of the punishments, the scourge of tropical disease, and the overwhelming sense of a cruel finality. The actual prison extended over several locations, but the most isolated was the Île du Diable, and its most famous prisoner was Captain Alfred Dreyfus. A vast majority of the more than 80,000 prisoners sent there never made it back to France. Few prisoners escaped. In 1854 France passed a new law of forced residency that required convicts to stay in French Guiana after completion of their sentences for a time equal to that of their forced labor. A limited number of convicted women were sent with the intent that they would marry freed convicts and aid in the development of the colony. This policy was discontinued in 1907.

The settlements, now in seemingly picturesque ruin and overgrown with the relentless force of the jungle, have become a tourist destination—the actual Devil's Island can be seen only from off-shore. Read more here.

This documentary is replete with every verbal cliché about Devil's Island but contains much interesting historical footage:

Devil's Island has, not surprisingly, become the locale of many (mostly lurid) Hollywood films (Hell on Devil's Island, I Escaped from Devil's Island, Women of Devil's Island, etc.). The most well-known (and serious in its intent) was Papillon (1973), starring the somewhat unexpected juxtaposition of two very different actors—Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. It was based on the now largely discredited  autobiographical account of the escape of Henri Charrière. It was filmed in Spain and Jamaica, but the famous cliff-jumping scene was done in Hawaii. (McQueen insisted that he, not a stunt double, do the actual jump.)

In 1899, five years after the beginning of the Dreyfus Affair, the French pioneer filmmaker Méliès made a silent film on the subject. It is of more historical interest than dramatic or visual—and it has the dubious distinction of being the first movie censored for political reasons. France indeed was very sensitive to the notorious image that Devil's Island conjured up and, over the time of its existence, tried to censor all references. But the image lives on in our collective unconscious—nowhere stronger than  the horrific and disturbing Kafka short story and the powerfully dramatic Glass opera derived from it.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Math, Magic, and Music: An Interview with Carl Rosenberg, Acoustician

We sat down recently with Carl Rosenberg, an acoustician with Acentech, Inc. who consults with BLO on Opera Annex productions, including the upcoming In the Penal Colony at the Cyclorama at Boston Center for the Arts. A fascinating mix of math, music, and magic, read on for his insights about what makes a site-specific work sound glorious!

BLO: How did you get into this field?
Carl Rosenberg: Well, I studied to be an architect but found that I didn’t have a design flair. But I really resonated with the course I took in architecture school on architectural acoustics, which combine my interest in buildings with some facility in music and a more engineering bent on how buildings are put together.

Now I’m primarily a consultant. I work for colleges and universities, for classrooms, for atriums and public spaces, lots of small auditoriums at schools, office acoustics, a variety of things. 

BLO: Are you a musician yourself?
CR: I studied music the way kids do—taking piano lessons! But I like learning more about how spaces sound and what one does in the design of spaces to influence that acoustical quality, which in turn affects how we hear, how you can understand speech, the excitement of a dramatic production if you can understand the words, and so on.

BLO: How did you begin working with BLO?
CR: I think I was referred to Esther [Nelson, the General & Artistic Director of BLO] by a mutual friend, who suggested that if there were concerns or questions about the acoustics for these more challenging or non-traditional spaces, I might be able to help. And indeed the consultant work I do as my career deals with a wide variety of acoustical problems in spaces. So it started with learning more about the Annex productions, and my association with BLO developed through that.

BLO: What are some of the hallmarks of good acoustics? What do you listen for in a space?
CR: Good acoustics obviously depends dramatically on what the goal is of the space—it would be different for an office, for a restaurant, for a classroom, for musical productions, different for different types of musical productions. Where there would be amplified sound, you would want a certain type of acoustical quality, but for live music (especially the voice) you want a different type of acoustical quality. It also depends on the space and what the relationship is between the audience and the performers.

With opera, you want to allow the voice to resonate, to be heard, and you also want make sure there’s a degree of articulation and clarity. And those are the challenges that we’re faced with in any operatic venue.

BLO: When you walk into a space that we’re considering for Opera Annex, what are the things that you’re listening for or evaluating in that space?
CR: The relationship between the audience and the performers, because that’s the most important way to gauge the audience for the performance. [I also evaluate] the degree to which the space will support the propagation of the voice and the music that goes with it without sounding too muddy, or without overpowering the voice with extraneous sounds. One of the variables that helps us evaluate that balance is reverberation, which is the multiple echoes that you hear in a space. So you would rather the environment be more supportive of the voice than, for instance, singing into a closet.

BLO: What contributes to that? Is it the hardness of the materials that comprise the space?
CR: Exactly. The reverberation, which is one measure of the quality of the sound, is directly proportional to the volume and inversely proportional to the amount of absorptive materials in a space. So with those two variables, we can control that reverberation, which is measured in seconds. The audience is always a major component of the absorption in a hall—in so many spaces, the reverberation changes dramatically from an empty space to a full one. But if we make allowances for that and look at the other materials as well as the volume of the space, we have some sense of what that reverberation will be like.

Set model for In the Penal Colony. Design by Julia Noulin-Mérat.
BLO: So in the Cyclorama, we had to add a lot of absorptive materials to the set. Can you talk a little bit about how you came that conclusion?
CR: Anyone who goes into the Cyclorama, especially when it’s empty, will be overwhelmed and impressed in a positive manner by the huge volume, and the fact that all the surfaces that are on the finished materials now—floor, ceiling, oculus—are hard, sound-reflecting materials. There’s nothing soft or porous or fuzzy about any of them. Again, that will change with the addition of an audience, because all of us introduce absorptive materials, but with some rough calculations my colleagues and I figured that this space would be too echoy [for the opera]. So we worked with the design team to incorporate additional absorptive materials. The problem with the Cyclorama is exacerbated by the fact that its circular shape will focus sound in certain ways, just like a lens…or anything that has a concave surface. In the Cyclorama, both the ceiling above, which is a concave dome, as well as the circular floor plan [contribute to this]. So the location of the treatments is our attempt to control that focusing that will occur.

BLO: Are sounds generally more reverberant when they are in a space that is circular?
CR: [In a circular space,] the sound isn’t reflected or bounced around in an even manner…the extreme case of this focusing is evident at the Mapparium at the Christian Science Center, where there’s an entire sphere and if you go inside you can be overwhelmed by the echoes and the reverberation, the focusing, that occurs. The problem is not that severe at the Cyclorama, of course, but [the Cyclorama] was obviously not designed for live performances, it was to look at a painting of the battle [of Gettysburg].

BLO: What has been the most challenging venue that you’ve worked on for the Opera Annex series?
CR: Well, I think the Cyclorama will be one of the most challenging. Although, the Castle was an even larger volume and potentially even more reverberant. So that was a challenge too. The balance of these Annex productions is getting the absorption to be part of the stage set, the design; it’s not a permanent installation, [and we’re] limited by budget. In the Cyclorama what we could do was also limited by the structure itself and its historical significance…

BLO loads in to the Temple Ohabei Shalom for
The Love Potion, November 2014.
Another challenging space was the Temple Ohabei Shalom, where we did the production of The Love Potion last Season. An interesting space and  a huge volume, but as it turned out, that entire interior surface had already been treated with a sound-absorbing finish. Which made it quite non-reverberant, or dead, which is not what you would expect given the visual impact. You walk in and you expect to hear a long reverberation like a cathedral, but it’s not that at all. So our challenge in that case was to help bring some of the sound back to the audience that would otherwise be lost.

BLO: Anything you want to add?
CR: I would want to say that it’s been a profound honor to work with the production staff and the music staff; obviously we all share the same goals, but they have a love of opera which is inspiring and contagious and that’s been a wonderful opportunity for me.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Living Legend: Philip Glass Visits the MFA

On Wednesday, October 21, Boston Lyric Opera was honored to join the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Shapiro Celebrity Lecture Series in welcoming living legend Philip Glass to the Shapiro Celebrity Lecture Series for an interview and talk, titled Philip Glass: 40 Years of Opera

First, BLO artists kicked off the event with scenes from In the Penal Colony, performed by Neal Ferreira as the Visitor and David McFerrin as the Officer, accompanied by James Myers on piano.


Following the performance, Mr. Glass spoke with WGBH's Jared Bowen about his storied career, as well as some of his early struggles and striving, including driving cabs in New York City, working as a plumber, and much more!

Mr. Glass also addressed the difficulty of being a working artist today, as well as his own writing process, saying, "I just write it down--but it wasn't like that in the beginning." 

Stay tuned for excerpts from their talk on Jared Bowen's show Open Studio, November 6 on WGBH!

All photos by Eric Antoniou for Boston Lyric Opera.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

“Variety, Curiosity, Exploration:” A Composer in Search of Almost Everything

By John Conklin, BLO Artistic Advisor

In my blog article on Philip Glass, I mentioned the multitude of forms, genres, performance styles, and performance forces that he seems to delight in. Here are a few more examples of his range and how he has intriguingly merged virtuosic performances with the essence of his compositional style.

But first up, here’s another chance to sit down across a table from him, via this interview on YouTube. Glass is a very charming and frank companion, and a disarmingly casual speaker even as he deals with very important issues in the life of a contemporary composer.

He has another opera based on Kafka, The Trial which was written in 2014 for the Theater Wales—the same group who gave the premiere of In the Penal Colony. Here, we see how the opera was put together as well as a few scenes.

Satyagraha is, I think, my favorite Glass opera. I saw the premiere in Rotterdam in 1980, and the Metropolitan Opera production (first given in London by the English National Opera) is one of the best productions of any opera that I have seen. Here is a short introduction that features a few of the many striking stage and musical images.

A short digression…outside the Met Opera House, a demonstration, and a moment which shows his political commitment and passion for freedom and justice, an integral part of his personality and musical persona.

Appomattox is another historical meditation, commissioned by the San Francisco Opera in 2007. A new production will be given by the Washington Opera this season.

The famous scene from The Perfect American between Walt Disney (in the last months of his life) and a terrifying “Abraham Lincoln.”  The libretto for this piece is by Rudy Wurlitzer, librettist of In the Penal Colony.

Koyaanisqatsi, Glass’ score to a film by Godfrey Reggio. Philip and his ensemble have played this score live to accompany film showings around the world. In fact, it was at such a presentation in Sydney, Australia, (I was doing The Pearl Fishers there) that I first met Philip, and we had our first discussions about his then-new opera, In the Penal Colony. These details of the whole film project are quite fascinating.

Dracula…a new soundtrack commissioned by Universal Studio to accompany a 1999 DVD release of the 1931 film and written for the Kronos Quartet (frequent collaborators with Glass). Here we see a live performance, accompanying a showing of the film.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Philip Glass: An Operatic Life

By John Conklin, BLO Artistic Advisor 

Image courtesy of Stewart Cohen
Nefertiti, Walt Disney, Columbus, Martin Luther King, Robert E. Lee, Einstein, Gandhi, Galileo, Stephen Hawking, and so on: What composer has managed to weave such an astonishingly disparate set of figures into his operas? Yet the range merely illustrates the scope, the variety, the endless curiosity and exploration of the protean Philip Glass. His 26 operas (the exact number count varies, as he plays extensively in the borders between genres) form an unassailable place at the center of contemporary opera—and of course, there certainly are more to come. In the website Operabase’s statistical listing for the seasons 2009- 14, his operas take first place in the category of performances of works by a living composer by a wide margin (Glass came in at 79, compared to 29 by Jake Heggie and 28 by John Adams). The Fall of the House of Usher is his most-performed opera.

He has set libretti in a multitude of languages—Sanskrit, Spanish, Latin, Hebrew, Akkadian. He has set texts drawn from such figures as Allen Ginsberg, Doris Lessing, Edgar Allan Poe, and Franz Kafka (In the Penal Colony, of course, but also The Trial). He finds a vital compositional energy in close and ongoing collaborations with directors, designers, performers, and conductors such as Robert Wilson, Martin Scorsese, and Ravi Shankar. He writes in a wide range of compositional genres: nine symphonies, plus chamber music, concerti, movie scores (earning three Academy Award nominations), song cycles, music for dance, incidental theater music. He is a sympathetic, relaxed, and eloquent speaker and a skilled writer. His recent book, Words Without Music, is a unique combination of intriguing autobiography (including anecdotes on studying at Juilliard and then with Nadia Boulanger, driving a taxi, hanging out in New York City in the ‘60s, the trials and delights of becoming a “famous” composer, and more), a fascinating glimpse into the musical intricacy of his compositions, a sobering study of how a contemporary “serious” musician can (or cannot) make a living, and, as Laurie Anderson puts it, “his transcendent vision of human culture as the transmission of ideas through time.”

To end on a more personal note, I have had the great pleasure myself to collaborate with Philip on two occasions. In 1990, he composed music for the chorus in a production of The Bacchae, a production of the Public Theater in Central Park that I designed. The compositions were complex, difficult, and summoned up a vision of the exaltation and terror of the Greek theater at its most powerful.

Glass in 1993. Photograph by Pasquale Salerno.
Public domain.
I also worked closely with him, the director JoAnne Akalaitis, and the costume and lighting designers Susan Hilferty and Jennifer Tipton on the world premiere of In the Penal Colony, given in Seattle and subsequently in New York City. He was at all times both rigorous and open, generous of spirit and just a great guy to sit down with and have a talk (about anything). JoAnne had an idea to introduce Kafka as a character, speaking text from his diary, and after much discussion (it significantly altered the form and rhythm of the piece), he embraced the idea. There was also inevitably much talk about how to represent the “machine” on stage. I remember gingerly suggesting perhaps the movements of members of the string quintet, as they played the driving score with its almost obsessive energy, might “be” the visual manifestation of the machine. This was seriously considered but, in the end, discarded. I was always impressed by Philip’s genuine ability to understand and to absorb any ideas of his fellow collaborators into the spirit of the production…even if in this case, my idea embarrassingly equated his music with a terrifying instrument of torture. Perhaps I had not thought the implications out thoroughly, but Philip just smiled generously.

This article has been reprinted from the fall issue of Coda, the magazine of Boston Lyric Opera. To read the magazine in full, please visit