Luke Bedford’s operatic parable of climate change makes U.S. premiere at Aspen Music Festival
If You Go …
What: Luke Bedford’s ‘Seven Angels’
Where: Harris Concert Hall
When: Saturday, Aug. 5, 4:30 p.m.
How much: $25 (open to festival passholders)
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House and Harris Concert Hall box offices; http://www.aspenmusicfestival.com
Composer Luke Bedford believes that opera can and should respond to current events.
“It’s essential for the art form to speak about contemporary issues because we have contemporary audiences and that’s what’s on their minds,” Bedford, 39, said this week from England. “Whether it’s a new piece or one written 400 years ago, they can speak to us about something today. It’s important to explore that.”
Beford’s “Seven Angels” certainly does. The chamber opera, with a libretto by Glyn Maxwell, is a parable about climate change and the lack of meaningful global leadership responding to its causes. Bedford’s first opera, “Seven Angels” premiered in 2011 in Birmingham, England. It makes its U.S. debut tonight at Harris Concert Hall, in a presentation by the Aspen Music Festival.
The piece — to be conducted by Yves Abel with Aspen Opera Center singers and the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble — follows the titular seven celestial beings, who fall through space into a dystopian wasteland. There, they can sense the apocalyptic events that occurred, and they transform into the people who lived in — and destroyed — a once-thriving world. The angels then tell the story of a king and queen who brought about the end of the world through their reckless greed and of their rebellious son who, with the help of a waitress, seeks to revive life through better stewardship.
Milton’s “Paradise Lost” provided inspiration for Bedford and Maxwell. The librettist once described his adaptation process as throwing the pages of Milton’s epic poem into the air and making a story out of the mess that fell to the ground.
“We took it as a starting point, but then made our own story up from it,” Bedford explained. “And very early on we wanted to touch on things like climate change and combine it with a ‘Paradise Lost’ story.”
Bedford and Maxwell began their work on “Seven Angels” during the era of George W. Bush (“who seems now a very sane president,” Bedford quipped). Bedford saw something operatic in global leaders’ lack of action on issues like climate change.
“We talked about the G7 conferences, where world leaders would meet and pretend to plant a tree and make some symbolic gesture,” he said, “but then not actually do anything to help anyone.”
On that specific point, Maxwell wrote a section for the second act where the king gathers priests and industry leaders together for a summit, but they end up doing nothing with the opportunity. In “Seven Angels,” this leads to the end of everything.
“It’s something at the time that was relevant and that, sadly, is just as important today,” he said.
Musically, “Seven Angels” draws from chorales and signals the cataclysmic end of the world with chaotic and clattering noise. Before composing “Seven Angels,” Bedford had never written any piece of music longer than — by his count — 12 minutes. So penning a two-act, 80-minute opera was a monumental undertaking for the acclaimed young composer. But the collaborative spirit of writing an opera — working with Maxwell on the libretto, then with directors and actors to stage it in England and Germany — was a rare joy.
“It’s tremendously exciting,” he said. “Writing concert pieces, you’re more isolated. You write alone in your room and you show up at rehearsal and there isn’t a whole lot in between.”
Bedford said he doesn’t want to be prescriptive about what people should walk away with from “Seven Angels.” But the subject matter inevitably will leave its first American audience thinking about the choices we, and the leaders we elect, are making about the world.
“We can be very short-sighted in the way we focus on our small lives at the moment,” he said. “It’s an attempt to make us see the bigger picture.”
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