Powers of Two: A Baroque Modern Opera

Modern Baroque Opera newsletter, May 2004

In the last newsletter I suggested that one approach to contemporary opera might be to bring some aspects of the Baroque period &endash; lyrical voices, importance of text, allegorical references and theatrical techniques to suggest them &endash; into a contemporary setting. I'm not suggesting that Powers of Two will fulfill all of those goals, but it is indeed inspired by them. The past few months of my residency have seen the assembly of a wonderful production team and cast, as well as a thorough review of the text in order to enhance its clarity. We are now at the threshold of rehearsals that will bring those intentions to life, something I've dreamed about in the nearly 10 years since the project idea began. Here is a synopsis of the story we want to tell.

Powers of Two is about four young urbanites engaged in various relationships, none of which appear to be working. In the first act ("Repetition") they are caught up in the technological world of cellphones and video images where the virtual is confused with the real, often because the virtual seems more desirable. Inwardly, though, they long for the same personal fulfillment and ideal partner as anyone else, except they are looking in the wrong place. These characters aren't given specific real names, identified instead by generic roles (The Man, The Woman, The Artist, and The Journalist), but they refer to their desired "other" through classical references, e.g. Orpheus, Miranda, Tristan, Oedipus.

The characters also cover a range of sexual orientations, with the heterosexual couple being the baritone and soprano, contrary to operatic convention. The mezzo is a hardbitten journalist who is trying to hide her lesbianism and work in the male-dominated mass media, but in private moments, she longs for a lover like the others. Equally confused is the tenor, a gay artist, possibly a poet songwriter, who thinks he's in love with the baritone who in turn falls in love, not just with the beautiful soprano, but even moreso with her video image. The soprano, caught up in the world of romantic and intellectual poetry, longs for an ideal man who she calls Orpheus, and feels trapped when the man to whom she's attracted doesn't live up to that image.

The remaining three acts follow these characters as they set out on quests to resolve their frustrations, but they do so thinking that someone or something else has the answers they are seeking. Therefore their searches are doomed to failure unless they resolve their inner conflicts and find answers within themselves. In Act 2, the Journalist tries to get a media story from a crazy fortune teller called the Sibyl whose visions are of a "Golden Age of long ago", thereby representing traditional wisdom. The Sibyl is also seeking a successor and hopes to find her in the person of the Journalist whose video camera and lights only serve to blind the Sibyl. The Journalist extols the virtues of the modern "Golden Age" of television, particularly the idealized beauty of the female models portrayed there. The Sibyl critiques these images as false and unreal ("they cannot die") and succeeds in pulling the Journalist into her sphere in which she discards her materialistic ways and in a symbolic death and rebirth, is transformed into the new Sibyl, called Sappho, with a reference to the Countess Geschwitz in Alban Berg's Lulu who sacrifices herself in her love for Lulu.

In Act 3, the Artist also seeks guidance, less cynically than the Journalist, from an equally strange character called the Seer. He can only sing but not speak, and seems to give the Artist enticing images and melodies, the first being the video image of a beautiful man, representing artistic beauty through which desire can be sublimated. The melodies the Seer sings are also a mini-tour through Western music history, with quotations from the Medieval "L'homme armé", Monteverdi's Combattimento, Wagner's Liebestod, and Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex. However, the Artist misunderstands all of the words in these foreign language texts, distorts them to their opposite meanings, but goes on to compose and sing beautiful songs of his own. Still, he is frustrated by the fact that this process doesn't bring him any closer to his idealized lover, the "god-like youth" who at one point he imagines having died. At this crisis, the Seer turns inwards in a symbolic act of blinding, and the Artist begins to hear a new voice within himself, and the act ends with both achieving their goals in different ways.

The final act returns to the problem of the baritone's search for the beautiful woman of his dreams who he calls Miranda. However, his reliance on vision is a stumbling block and so the act opens with his fearful encounter with a pure light field in which he cannot discern anything. In a reversal of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, the soprano warns him not to look at her but to let her voice guide him, something he is reluctant to do since the absence of sight suggests death. He is startled, though, when the Artist and Journalist enter and effortlessly cross into the light field and in fact meet their ideal partners at the threshold. These are the dancers who were always present in Act 1, but whom they could not see in their confusion. Eventually, the baritone casts off his worldly clothes, trusts the sound of the soprano's voice and is reunited with her in what the subtitle of the act suggests is "Beyond". The opera ends with a joyous chorus, the "song of the stars," to a traditional First Nations text.

So, what is the meaning of this symbolic treatment of the spiritual and psychological quests for fulfillment that these characters undergo? The "power" of "two" in the title refers to the synergy when opposites (such as male/female, hearing/vision, virtual/real) act in harmony, not in conflict. The power of these apparent oppositions is the ability to create a unity when reconciled. But the deeper meaning is that answers are never found in external sources &endash; not even this opera! &endash; but come from within, with art perhaps giving us the nudge we need to find the right path.