A defining moment for Seattle Opera

The world premiere of its first commissioned opera, "Amelia," is dramatically thrilling but musically disappointing.
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William Burden, Kate Lindsey, and Jane Eaglen in 'Amelia'

The world premiere of its first commissioned opera, "Amelia," is dramatically thrilling but musically disappointing.

Curtain up at Seattle Opera on Daron Aric Hagen's Amelia after seven years of gestation, 105 costumes, 34 singers, 46 musicians, and at a cost of $3.6 million. And we see almost every penny onstage at McCaw Hall: a Vietnamese village, its inhabitants singing in Vietnamese; a huge airplane wing extending across Puget Sound; a full-scale Lockheed Electra.

Amelia has all the elements of great story-telling: impressive sets, a powerful narrative, appealing performers. Amelia represents a defining moment for Seattle culture: a new and challenging piece of theater, a memorable production, and a solid, if not quite grand, opera.

The music (with one great, soaring exception) is the least memorable part of the production. That splendid moment comes midway through the second half of the opera. Jane Eaglen, as Amelia's aunt, entirely credible as a heavy-set, bespectacled, middle-aged midwife, frumpy and fussing with her knitting, provides the vocal high point with a heartfelt prayer at the bedside of her comatose niece: "Oh stars, flung wide across the dome,/If only you could guide her home ..."

The words themselves (sometimes grand, sometimes barely exceeding the sentiments of a Hallmark sympathy card) are by Amelia's librettist, the poet Gardner McFall, but the melody is actually "Eternal Father, Strong to Save," better known as the Navy Hymn, a solemn, uplifting piece of 19th century church music by the composer of "Nearer My God to Thee." Eaglen — Seattle resident, one of the world's great sopranos but whose recent stage appearances have been less than convincing — sings her hymn with impressive musicality and a calm yet commanding stage presence. For that shining, breathtaking moment, she reminds you why we love opera.

Amelia was commissioned by Speight Jenkins, now in his 25th season as Seattle Opera's general director. "The glory of opera," he points out, "is the power of music to enrich words." But the music is, sad to say, the weakest part of this highly collaborative work. With a few exceptions (the first act's "Hymn to the Stars," the second act's "Letter" aria), the music lacks drive and too often wanders aimlessly and tunelessly.

Hagen is a well-regarded American composer whose original concept was an opera based on flight, inspired by McFall's poems. The story was developed by Steven Wadsworth from Hagen's original concept. In the end, McFall also wrote the libretto and Wadsworth directed. All three share creative credit, but it's Wadsworth's story-telling that makes the production memorable.

It's a complex structure, built around layers of time and space; reality, fantasy and memory: the disastrous failure of Icarus, the first flier; the disastrous end to the adventures of Amelia Earhart; the disastrous fate of countless military fliers in the Vietnam War. The feathers of Icarus's wings; the wings of Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Electra (like Milton's angel, "with mighty wings outspread...brooding on the vast abyss"); the wing of a super-secret bomber. And more stunning visual elements: a suburban tract house, the Vietnamese village, a hospital where a burned letter materializes.

That's the letter in which Amelia's father Dodge, a Navy aviator, reaffirms his noble sentiments: "If I am lost, do not despair. Keep faith, go forward, never forget." (This echoes Yeats's Irish Airman, "I know that I shall meet my fate/ Somewhere in the skies above.") McFall's libretto doesn't explore the darker side of this code of honor: Dodge's mission was to drop bombs, after all. When he is shot down over North Vietnam and refuses to "talk," his captor threatens to shoot a girl from the village, a girl Amelia's age. Dodge replies, "I have faith in my country. I will do my duty." The girl is executed, and the dying Dodge attempts to atone by showing her parents a picture of Amelia.

William Burden, last seen shirtless in Seattle as Nadir in Pearl Fishers, wears battle fatigues and dress whites this time as Dodge. His earnest delivery is echoed by Nathan Gunn as Amelia's husband, Paul. (Girls fall for guys who remind them of their dad, right?) Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey handles the title role with aplomb, building to her very own mad scene at the start of Act Two (virtually unheard of for a mezzo), then recovering and giving birth to her own daughter at the opera's climax.

Hagen uses a number of musical tricks and tropes: post-Wagnerian leitmotives, notably a tension-building, tympanic SOS to signal danger; trills to illustrate the flutter of wings; rhythmic cadences for beeping hospital monitors. No instruments at all for the birth, just five minutes of ecstatic voices. It's in the orchestral interludes between scenes that Hagen should really shine, but despite Gerard Schwarz's energetic conducting, these mini-symphonies (unfortunately marred by frantic stagehands noisily moving scenery) fall flat. It's as if the orchestra were simply playing a loop of notes until a green light signals that the stage was set for next scene.

And that's not far from the truth: Hagen's own blog describes, in candid detail, that he knows exactly how many notes he needs to write to get "from here to there":

Word came from Seattle that the production team needed three minutes to change the set and that my worst fear would be realized: a closed curtain 'ꀔ which could bring the whole story to a screeching halt at the very moment forward momentum was most needed 'ꀔ would be required. Although it felt like a lifetime was being asked for, what it meant practically was that ten seconds were needed for the curtain to come down, another two and a half minutes for the set change...

And later:

An orchestral interlude of at least 150 seconds' length would need to be wedged between the moment Amelia was wheeled out and the nearly five minutes of filmic underscoring that would serve as an apotheosis of the opera's various musical ideas.

Reading the blog gives you insights into the composer's creative process, and the ways operas are put together on the fly. You can certainly admire his dedication and craftsmanship, though it sometimes sounds more like paint-by-numbers than Puccini.

Amelia is Seattle Opera's first commissioned work, but not its first world premiere. There have been several, most recently Carlisle Floyd's Of Mice and Men in 1970. And the Amelia we're seeing started out quite differently. It was originally envisioned as a series of shorter pieces about flight to be called Icarus Flies. Wadsworth argued for a stronger "through-story" that centered on the character of Amelia, while incorporating the Icarus myth along with a fictionalized Amelia Earhart (simply called The Flier).

On paper, it might have appeared a hopeless muddle, but Thomas Lynch's sets allow the different layers of time and space (as well as flashbacks to distant locations) to take form through the use of scrims, careful lighting, and scenery like the suspended airplanes. (One slip: his Vietnamese village looks a bit too Tuscan-sunny.) It fell to lighting designer Duane Schuler to help the audience follow the non-linear story, adding (as he put it in the program notes) "a layer of clarity, rather than confusion" to the proceedings.

The linear nature of time is not the basis of narrative here. Amelia's story breaks through those barriers, not because of the music but in spite of it. Amelia might make a reasonably entertaining stage play, but its real medium would seem to be the graphic novel, where shifts of perspective and focus, of time and space, are routine.

Seattle Opera presents the world premiere of Daron Aric Hagen's "Amelia" at McCaw Hall, through May 22nd. Tickets ($25 to $176) online at www.seattleopera.org or by calling the box office at 206.389.7676 (outside of Seattle: 800.426.1619).


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).