Opera enthusiasts will have themselves a musical feast as Opera Philadelphia’s inaugural O17 festival spreads across the city from Sept. 14 to 25.
The much-hyped festival is set to include revamped performances of known classics like Mozart’s The Magic Flute to a multitude of world premieres set on unexpected stages across the city, including already sold-out performances of The Wake World by David Hertzberg.
Hertzberg, a Los Angeles native who at 27 is entering his third year as Opera Philadelphia’s composer-in-residence, was challenged with writing the opera, music and libretto for the festival and setting it in an unusual “theater”: the Barnes Foundation.
He had previously written The Rose Elf, a one-act opera based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, as part of Opera Philadelphia’s Double Exposure project, in which two teams performed the opera to their interpretation.
“They asked me to either compose a few scenes or a short-ish stretch of dramatic music and … I kind of got carried away and wrote an entire opera. As one does, right?” he said.
He began studying piano, violin and cello when he was 7 or 8, and his passion for composition took him to various arts schools, including the Juilliard School for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, where he studied with Samuel Adler, “an amazing mentor and really dear friend and a wonderful, Jewish composer,” as Hertzberg said, and the Curtis Institute of Music. For O17, he was tasked with writing a piece that was “inspired by or responded to” the collection at the Barnes.
“I was really thrilled they asked me to do this — thrilled and sort of horrified,” he amended with a laugh, “because of how crazy the timeline was to write the piece for the festival.”
He was in Aix-en-Provence last summer attending an opera festival when Opera Philadelphia asked him to write the piece for O17, which also had to take place in the physical space of the Barnes.
“I was so excited about that idea because if you’ve been to the Barnes … it’s such an unbelievably rich collection of incredible work,” he said. “What I loved so much about it is it doesn’t even feel like a museum; it always felt to me like some kind of incredible temple or totally otherworldly mystical shrine or something.”
Walking around the gallery one day with a docent who explored the theory behind Albert Barnes’ specific vision of the collection — which features works by Cezanne, Picasso, Renoir and Van Gogh, among others, intermingled in “ensembles” with ordinary objects as a spatula or a door hinge — provided him with a spark of inspiration for his O17 piece.
“It was really when we were getting to talking about Barnes’ thinking about how he put the whole thing together that I sort of had my ‘aha moment’ about how this piece was going to come to life,” he said. “[Barnes] was arranging them like he wanted people to see the way that all these things that came from disparate universes and worlds and cultures and aesthetic universes were kind of the same.”
He was reminded of a (sort of) fairy tale he’d once read called The Wake World that a friend had sent to him. At the time, he didn’t even know who wrote it, though he later discovered it was Aleister Crowley, a 20th-century British poet, magician and occultist once dubbed the “wickedest man in the world.”
It follows Lola as she goes on a journey with her fairy prince, who is actually a representation of her higher self and is actually a woman. It’s a highly sexualized first-person narrative that first appeared in a journal of anonymous publications circulated among magic societies.
“The story is written in this unbelievably confusing way, and I didn’t really understand it at the time,” Hertzberg said, “but I devoured it and totally finished it because I thought it was so compelling for some reason.”
Going through the rooms of the Barnes reminded him of the spaces along Lola’s journey. With the opera, he hopes to amplify the features of the Barnes collection in a similar way.
He also learned Crowley’s story was influenced by Kabbalah and the spheres of sefirot, as Crowley himself was interested in the subject. Elements of mysticism and interconnectedness were present in Crowley’s other works, as Hertzberg discovered.
The spiritual elements of Judaism are something that have also interested Hertzberg as he’s gotten older. He grew up attending a Jewish day school and observing holidays, but his connection has deepened only recently.
“The real spiritual and religious aspects of Judaism did not figure prominently in my life, and now I would say the exact opposite is true,” he said. “I feel like actually my musical path has made me more connected to my Jewish roots.”
He was also eager to add a third element to the piece per Opera Philadelphia’s suggestion: the incorporation of the Opera Philadelphia Chorus. As there are not many operas that use a chorus, he was excited to be able to include their voices with the goal of making it feel organic.
As a result, the chorus will serve as part of the orchestra as well, blending their voices with the small instrumental orchestra and amplifying the “otherworldly” aspect of the space.
“I wanted the choir to be an agent of real dramatic power,” he said. “The choir both musically in a figurative way and also physically in a literal way kind of represent the palace that they journey through.”
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