Center for Contemporary Opera 2018 Review: Pascal Dusapin’s “To Be Sung” and Stein’s Intimate Love Affair

Credit: Sammy Van den Heuvel

“To Be Sung” was written in 1997 as Pascal Dusapin’s third opera. Set to Gertrude Stein’s text extracts from “A Lyrical Opera Made By Two,” Dusapin illuminated Stein’s modernist writing style and created a unique synergy between her intimate story and textual sound.  The Center for Contemporary Opera recently presented this impactful opera under the direction of Jorinde Keesmaat, who created a new dimension of connection through her imagination, with the raw physicality of her choreography at its core. Singers brought Stein’s words to life through movement and energy in a physical evocation. While singing, they contorted their bodies, in almost every position imaginable. It was an incredible mix of movement and singing that shocked the audience and gave depth to Dusapin’s composition, while uncovering the core intimacy of Stein’s relationship to her lover.  

Dusapin is known for his “romantic constraint” and use of vocals in his pieces.  He composed “To Be Sung,” featuring three female singers and one female speaker, in order to tell Stein’s story through the interconnectedness of the female voices. Stein wrote “A Lyrical Opera Made By Two” during the first World War while staying in Mallorca with her life partner Alice Babette Toklas.  With her words, Stein concentrated on the intimate life and love that she experienced during this time. In Dusapin’s opera, the female speaker navigated the emotional journey and was the pivotal key to interpretation. Judith Skinner, the female speaker, was superb in her performance. She transported the audience with her passionate portrayal of Stein’s story and remained vulnerable and open so that one might feel all of the emotions that she expressed. She remained intimately exposed throughout the entire performance.   

The three singers, Kristina Bachrach, Danielle Buonaiuto, and Anna Trombetta, fused an emotional soundscape of ethereal vocals and percussive texts that resonated with focus throughout the entire opera. The intense physicality of both the choreography and Dusapin’s composition, showcased the exquisite vocal technique and luscious colors of each voice.  

Curious to know more about the preparation required for a singer, Bachrach told OperaWire more about her experience:  “In order to prepare, I spent the full month before rehearsals began preparing the music full-time. Truly eight hours a day. The challenge that was unique to my part was the tessitura. The lion’s share of my singing sat between D on the staff and A above the staff. I had to be incredibly careful to stay resonant and pingy while not carrying any vocal weight up through the passaggio, because if I had I would have lost my voice halfway through the show! I have to give enormous credit to our expert conductor Sara Jobin who was a true rock in rehearsals and in performance.”

Bachrach and the other singers physically mastered the complexity of the opera, while also highlighting Keesmat’s overall direction.  Consciously aware of the narration within this piece, Keesmat evoked, “a human and emotional entrance that resonated in today’s society.”  Through her use of black props, minimal lighting and an aesthetic for spatial satiation, the audience reveled in the love affair.  Keesmat asked, “are we able to love in today’s society? Are we able to really connect? In the opera there is no real action. Only the kiss is an element that comes back.  My question to my set designer was to create a set that represents the outside world. That could interfere in the love bond between the two.  As you could see at the end of the opera solitude was dominate.”

“Is the intense love between Alice and Gertrude something we desire? Are we able to love in such a way?”

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About the Author

Jennifer Pyron
Jennifer Pyron is a classically trained musician that has toured Europe and the US as an opera, art song and oratorio singer. Currently based in NYC, she balances her performances and overall music appreciation by reviewing local emerging artists.

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