LEWIS SPRATLAN/JENNY KALLICK/JOHN DOWNEY: Architect (A Chamber Opera) – Julia Fox, soprano/Jeffrey Lentz, tenor /Richard Lalli, baritone/ Amherst College ensemble/ Mark Lane Swanson – Navona Records NV5905 audio CD + DVD (16:9 color) [Distr. by Naxos], (7/30/13) 64:48 ****:
This is the first opera I have ever encountered that is based on the philosophies of and sources of inspiration for an architect. That architect is Louis I. Kahn (1902-1974). Kahn was one of the world’s greatest and most visionary architects, whose structures are renowned for their geometric minimalism and their inspiration from classical structures. Some of his most telling work includes the Salk Institute at La Jolla, the Yale University Art Center and the National Assembly in Dacca, Bangladesh. He even contributed to public housing with his Carver Court project from 1943 near Philadelphia. So striking are his buildings and his philosophies that a 2003 documentary film, My Architect was well received. Now his vision is the topic of this chamber opera by Lewis Spratlan with electroacoustic contributions from Jenny Kallick – also the work’s librettist – and John Downey (who is also a resident radiologist at Stanford University Hospital!)
Spratlan is a fine composer with an eclectic and mostly tonal modernist style. He writes very well for instruments as well as voice. I am casually familiar with his Santa Fe Opera 2010 premiere, Life is a Dream (a work that earned him a Pulitzer Prize). This present work is as conceptual as is the work of Kahn. It is not a bio-opera with a story to tell in the conventional sense.
Key to the libretto is the presence of a Greek trickster god, Momus, who is sent to earth to inspire humans to build structures that glorify the gods. Presumably the ancients who built the Acropolis or the Parthenon believed in a divine inspiration, if not “Momus” specifically. Neither the man Louis Kahn, nor his wife, nor his assistants are depicted directly in Kallick’s libretto. Rather, Momus inspires the character “the Architect” with the help of other heavenly muses. The Guide shows the architect famous classical structures in Rome. The Engineer teaches the Architect some of the practical methods at hand, including the proper way to mix and mold concrete (!) as the Woman comments on the focused genius of the Architect while longing for his presence and attention.
Along the way, we see the Architect quoting the poet e.e.cummings and referring to Poe as well as Picasso; all of who are figures that Louis Kahn found very inspirational. This is absolutely not a linear libretto with a denouement and a conclusion. It is not a “story”. The main flow here is the Architect being approached by the muse, accepting inspiration and responding to it. Spratlan says that his work was, in turn, inspired by Kahn’s assertion that “to hear a sound is to see a space”. With that in mind, Spratlan and John Downey actually visited some renowned Kahn structures, such as the Salk Institute, the Phillips Exeter Academy Library and the Yale Center; to “hear” sounds that that the “space” suggested. It is a fascinating concept.
Musically, this is a fairly compact work that benefits from the mix of acoustical “operatic” resources and the electronic contributions of Kallick and Downey. It tends to give the work a blend of its sense of present and future; earthly and other-worldly. The accompanying DVD is a very helpful amalgam of original watercolor art used during the staging, as well as some of the buildings we see that the Architect envisions. The visual aspects of the opera also support the basis for Kahn’s philosophies on color and light and space. The video version, itself, was a separate performance venue and seen in several cities since the opera’s live premiere. The Amherst performing forces do a great job here and the singers, Julia Fox, Jeffrey Lentz and Richard Lalli, do a fine job, as well, in roles that require emotion through sound, not acting. [The DVD is extremely abstract and avant…Ed.]
If Architect, as an opera, has a problem; it is not that it is a chamber opera. There are plenty of wonderful works out there that might make a terrific companion piece to this. The issue might be that Architect is a work best appreciated by a niche audience consisting of people who like to explore modern operas of any sort; out of curiosity (I confess I am one of those….) and people who know the work of Louis Kahn and find the topic fascinating. This is a well-done and fascinating piece that I recommend listening to, then watching the video. It may remain a bit of a curiosity but it is also one of the most singularly unusual theater works in recent years that I have encountered, and congratulations, again, to Navona for its packaging and for its continued “outside the box” thinking.