a chamber opera scene for soprano, mezzo soprano, baritone, speaking voices, clarinet, viola, two pianos, percussion.
I wrote this opera scene for the new music ensemble, conTempo, at Brooklyn College. The ensemble consists of whomever signs up for the class, which is why the “orchestra” for this work is the atypical scoring of clarinet, viola, percussion, and two pianos. It was eventually premiered by the Graduate Center Contemporary Ensemble.
I had been living in New York City for about six months, and between traveling and busking, I had already spent a lot of time in the subway. Since this was such a large part of my New York experience, it seemed like a natural choice for the subject matter. Musically, I wanted to portray several aspects of being on the subway: the motor rhythms, squeals and bells of the train; the way the conductors talk at one moment like an irate mother and at other moments like a smarmy salesman, and the craziness of people busking or trying to sell things on the train. I also wanted to capture something of the way people normally talk, while still having something melodically appealing, so I combined chant notation (just noteheads to indicate pitch but nothing to indicate rhythm) with blues scales. Basically, the scene is an eight- minute recitative, without quite sounding like one.
In real life, nothing actually happens on the subway that is plot-worthy, so I decided to keep it that way in my piece. For about two weeks, whenever I rode on the subway, I took a small notebook and jotted down ads, everything the conductor said, conversations I had with a friend of mine, things homeless people said as they asked for money. At one point I fell onto someone as the train jerked forward; he commented angrily, and that became fodder for the libretto, too. After surveying what I had collected, I found the juxtaposition of the ad texts — promoting the wholesome goodness of an education at the New School, proper behavior in the subway, and everyone’s favorite omnipresent dermatologist, Dr. Zizmor — and the typical sad speech of a homeless person has its own dramatic propulsion. Subway riders, from investment bankers to the hipsters, to the homeless, are bombarded by these ads daily, and yet, how much do they affect our lives?
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