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Art

That unmatch’d form

A new opera by a Peabody alum explores the story of Ophelia

Photo: J.M. Giordano, License: N/A

J.M. Giordano

“She’s been the subject of poetry and visual art for hundreds of years,” Amy Beth Kirsten, who wrote Ophelia forever, says of Hamlet’s Ophelia.


All too often, opera is still seen as stuffy. In last week’s New Yorker magazine, classical-music critic Alex Ross wrote about what many are calling “black-box opera”—a movement to push beyond traditional classical stagings of operatic works. Through the proximity of Peabody and Baltimore’s DIY theater scene, the city could be a hub of inventive presentations that combine new music with adventurous stagings. This week, Peabody presents two chamber operas at the Baltimore Theater Project: Before Breakfast, composed by Thomas Pasatieri, with a libretto by Frank Corsaro; and Ophelia Forever, by Amy Beth Kirsten. City Paper caught up with Kirsten, a graduate of Peabody’s doctoral program, to talk about the state of opera and the story of Hamlet’s Ophelia.

City Paper: So how did this piece about Ophelia come to be?

Amy Beth Kirsten: I was actually taking a class when I was a doctoral student at Peabody, a class with Roger Brunyate, who was the director of the opera program, and they had a program for composers to write opera scenes that would be staged at school. So I came to him with this proposal because I had this idea for something more than just a scene, I wanted to do a whole story, a whole chamber opera—and I was really lucky, he said, “Go for it.” We had been talking about using Shakespeare as a jumping-off point for these opera scenes, and I really got attached to the character of Ophelia. And the first part of this class, one of the assignments was to write a song for soprano and piano, so I set Ophelia’s only soliloquy that she has in the entire play—I started doing more research on her character and found all this wealth of information about her character. She’s been the subject of poetry and visual art for hundreds of years, so it’s a really fertile ground for artistic concepts to bloom around this character of Ophelia, the archetypes of Ophelia, which evolved into the idea for the piece.

CP: How do you feel that starting with what is probably the most sacred author in the English language affected the way you dealt with the musical composition?

ABK: The way that I dealt with the Shakespeare text was for a lot of people pretty irreverent. I took fragments of the play, I set not only Ophelia’s lines but I also used other characters’ lines as if they were being spoken by Ophelia. It’s a jumble of excerpts from Shakespeare, from Rimbaud, from Baudelaire, from Christina Rossetti, and those pieces and fragments are woven together and what I ended up doing was I made a sort of a catalog of all these text fragments and decided I was going to focus on three different Ophelias, three archetypes, and I spread all these text fragments across my living room floor and eventually made three piles, associating certain lines of text with each of the archetypes. That whole project came before any note of music was written. I had this idea of the structure of the libretto in place before I wrote the music. For me, it was an interesting project to put Ophelia at the forefront of the story, where these different iterations of her persona are fighting each other and integrated and trying to emerge: Each one has a point in the piece where she is trying to emerge as the most powerful aspect. It was a great amount of fun. Because the three Ophelias are such strongly defined characters, the music for each one of them also has a very defined quality. So the “Violated Saint” for example, one of her arias, is written using a sort of chant-like notation, so that there’s no traditional rhythm that’s associated with her lines but notes are grouped together in certain ways [so] that you understand that this little segment is faster than the others. So this is kind of hearkening back to older ways of writing music. And then the “Faithful Seductress” has kind of a tango-esque aria at some point, so each one of them has a very particular musical quality.

CP: How much did you think about how it would be dramatized when you were composing?

ABK: It was at the forefront of my mind. It seems to happen a lot to me when I’m composing. I write a lot of theater pieces, so I think about how the Ophelias might be moving as they’re singing or where they might be or what the stage might look like. There’s also this character of Hamlet in Ophelia Forever who you never actually hear from, you only see him, so I had some idea about how he was going to move and what his interaction with the Ophelias might be like. It’s very much at the forefront of my mind.

CP: That’s interesting, because we hear so much from Hamlet in Shakespeare, but his words always seem to be internally directed, like thoughts.

ABK: So that’s very true. It’s funny because I think I read somewhere that Ophelia has the fewest number of words in Hamlet out of all the characters. I mean, she’s barely there in a sense. So this sort of flips the characters. Here, Hamlet is barely there. This whole piece is centered around her.

CP: There was the piece in The New Yorker this week about a sort of “black-box opera” that is becoming an international thing where the dramatic aspects are becoming more important, and it’s taking a lot of things from DIY theater scenes. Is that something you see yourself as a part of?

ABK: Absolutely. In fact, one of my recent projects was a kind of chamber opera that was written for eighth blackbird in which they portray the character and they actually sing and play and dance throughout the whole 60-minute work and it’s meant to be shown in a small space. It’s a traveling show with stage design and costumes and beautiful lighting design, but it’s meant to be travel-able. But the idea of this DIY black-box thing is very appealing to me and is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I think it’s a really interesting dichotomy that’s happening right now with the large opera companies who are doing the HD telecasts to movie theaters and stuff because what you’re getting when you see those broadcasts are the up-close intimate shots—you get to see the singers up close. But there’s this weird dynamic of a big opera company showcasing something really intimate. But what is actually happening and what people actually want is to have those intimate experiences in smaller spaces. A lot of the new music ensembles who are on the edge of things right now are doing these interdisciplinary, multimedia, theater-based works, and I find it incredibly exciting.

Before Breakfast and Ophelia Forever will be performed at the Baltimore Theater Project Feb. 6 through Feb. 9. For more information, please visit theatreproject.org.

To see a gallery of photos from rehearsals of Before Breakfast and Ophelia Forever, go to citypaper.com/ophelia.

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