Opera premiere tonight, return of Levine mark festival’s 50th | AspenTimes.com

Opera premiere tonight, return of Levine mark festival’s 50th

For the celebration of its 50th anniversary this summer, the Aspen Music Festival and School has had no small number of major events: world premieres, the return of former students and guest artists, extra-ambitious musical performances, and tie-ins with various other arts organizations in town.

At the center of the celebration, however, are a pair of events in Aspen this week: the return, after a two-decade absence, of longtime Aspen Music School student, conductor James Levine, and the world premiere of the chamber opera “Belladonna,” composed by Music Festival composer-in-residence Bernard Rands.

Levine, now the artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, conducts the Aspen Chamber Symphony tomorrow at 6 p.m., in a concert that includes works by Bach/Webern, Wagner, Mozart, and Levine’s mentor in his Aspen days, Darius Milhaud. On Sunday, Aug. 1, Levine conducts the Aspen Festival Orchestra in a 4 p.m. performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3.

Before Levine makes his first Aspen appearance in more than 20 years, Aspen audiences will have seen the first-ever performance of “Belladonna.” The opera, composed by Rands with a libretto by Leslie Dunton-Downer, opens tonight at 7 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House, and closes with a second performance on Saturday. “Belladonna” is conducted by Aspen Music Festival music director David Zinman and directed by Aspen Opera Theater Center director Edward Berkeley.

The two-act opera, commissioned specifically for the Aspen Music Festival’s 50th season, has been in the discussion stage for two years. The commission was awarded to Rands, who has been composer-in-residence at the Music Festival since 1976, and he quickly settled on Dunton-Downer to write the libretto. Dunton-Downer had written the libretto for the opera “Ligeia,” which had its American premiere in Aspen in 1995 and was composed by Augusta Read Thomas, who is married to Rands.

“It seemed like a fairly natural choice when I had to search for a librettist,” said Rands. “I didn’t have to search long.”

One of the first ideas Rands had for the opera was that the main characters would all be women. When Rands and Dunton-Downer happened to both be spending the same month at the Belaggio Center in northern Italy, the two spent mornings together discussing the opera. What they came up with is a story that opens with five intriguing women – a Chinese activist, a practitioner of alternative medicine, an opera soprano, a divinity graduate student and a classics professor – gathering for a dinner party. Ultimately, it is decided that the topic for dinner discussion will be love.

That discussion leads to all sorts of unpredictable places – a witch trial, an anti-abortion protest, an opera within the opera, a brewing affair between a professor and student. To Rands, the unpredictable nature of the story makes “Belladonna” more musical theater than traditional opera.

“In the theater, you can’t tell what a character’s going to do next,” said Rands, who has often composed for voice but who has made his first venture into opera with “Belladonna.” “And I like that idea – that there’s a constant mystery about the outcome which is a reasonable reflection of the way of contemporary life generally.

“In the Joycean and Homerian sense, I like the Ulyssean journey. You don’t know where your ship’s going to be blown, what the next island is, what the next experience is going to be.”

Musically, Rands said that “Belladonna” is “in line with traditional opera.” The five main characters, he noted, are each identified with a particular instrument – flute, oboe, clarinet, alto saxophone and bassoon – although none of the characters is limited to that instrument. But in the manner that the story is told, “Belladonna” departs from what Rands sees as traditional opera.

“Because of the nature of the unfolding of events, both musically and theatrically, generally speaking, opera is pretty predictable in its outcome,” said Rands. “Here, you don’t know what’s coming next. It’s more mysterious.”

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