Thursday, September 12, 2013

Well, it's now been over a year since my last post - again!  There's good reason for it, though.  Over the last year, I've been teaching music theory, passing my doctoral comprehensive exams, finishing my dissertation, and graduating from my doctoral program at Rice University (technically, now I'm Dr. Halka).  Oh, and writing some music.  I've also been doing a lot of traveling to festivals and workshops, and -- and this is why I get to write a new post today -- it just happens I find myself once again in Lithuania... writing another opera.

Only this time I'm not in Vilnius, but in the small town of Kražiai, where I've been living for a month at the M.K. Sarbievijaus Cultural Center.  I was invited for a month-long residency here to write a new chamber opera for the Baltic Chamber Opera Theater (Baltijos Kamerinis Operos Teatras).  And tomorrow, some of Kražiai's residents and I will get to hear some excerpts from the work, which I finished last week.

"Well, what's it about?"

The opera uses as its starting point the phenomenon of hikikomori. Before I came to Kražiai, I was introduced to the composer and librettist John Grimmett, who, lucky for me and for the opera, agreed to write a libretto based on this theme.  John is a great writer, and his one-act libretto, And Jill Came Tumbling After (also the title of the opera), was immediately inspiring.  One of its two main characters, Jack, is a hikikomori who has confined himself to his room at his mother's house.  The other main character, Jill (whose name you probably guessed), is a successful businesswoman with an overbearing father.  Both are childhood friends reconnecting through letters after more than a decade of not seeing each other.  Without going into a detailed synopsis, I can say that both characters go through a process of discovery and self-evaluation while learning what it truly means to be lonely and isolated.  Perhaps I'll give a more detailed synopsis in a subsequent post.

The opera is scored for 4 soloists (soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and baritone), clarinet, bassoon, and piano.  Tomorrow, I will accompany baritone Jonas Sakalauskas and soprano Ilona Pliavgo in a performance of two arias from And Jill Came Tumbling After, but I will also show excerpts from Julius, play some of my other music, and talk about my work in general.

I should also mention here how great it has been to complete my first artistic residency.  The peace and quiet, the great weather, the idyllic setting, the uninterrupted time to create - they have all contributed to an incredibly rewarding and productive experience, and I've learned a lot about myself as an artist.

I'll be in touch again after I return from Lithuania and have more news about a full production of the new opera, but for now, here are photos of just some of the many beautiful moments to which I was treated over this past month (the fourth photo is of one of my workspaces).  Talk to you soon and thanks for reading!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

2012 Happenings!

Hello?  Anyone there?

Sorry, everyone.  It's been just over a year since my last post, but quite a bit has happened since then.

First, Dipukų Rauda (DPs' Lament), the choral excerpt from Julius that was premiered back in 2009 by Jauna Muzika, is seeing a lot of action in 2012.  In May, Boston Metro Opera gave the U.S. premiere of the work at its annual Boston Contempo Festival (formerly Contemporary Americana Festival) as a result of the piece being named one of the winners of BMO's annual International Composers' Competition.  And on the heels of that award came the news that Dipukų Rauda was selected for performance at the ISCM World Music Days festival in Belgium.  Remember my post about the festival when it was in Vilnius?  I was totally blown away by the variety of programming and the huge crowds in attendance, and I remember thinking how cool it would be if something of mine were performed at the festival some day.  Well, here's to achieving one's major personal goals every once in a while.

Performing the work on the festival's final concert on November 4 at deSingel in Antwerp will be Belgium's own Aquarius Chamber Choir, (formerly the Goeyvaerts Consort) and I've been corresponding with the choir's director, Marc Michael De Smet, about the meaning of the text.  Marc's goal is to deliver a performance that most clearly delivers a text's message, and after hearing the singers' own testimonies and philosophies on this video (check out the comment at around 9:43), I know the performance will be incredible.

But that's not all!  In early December (12/2, 12/7, and 12/8), Dipukų Rauda will get three performances in the San Francisco area by the multi-award-winning chamber choir Volti.  Volti (just like Aquarius) is consistently recognized for its firm commitment to contemporary music, including its annual Choral Arts Lab, a program for composers in which new pieces are commissioned and workshopped. Needless to say, I'm especially happy they'll sing my music.

What else?

On August 5, the Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton, PA will host its 5th Lithuanian Heritage Day.  The event is dedicated to the three waves of twentieth-century Lithuanian immigrants to the U.S., but Julius will play a central role.  Not only will the filmed live premiere be shown, but soprano Maryte Bizinkauskas and pianist Michael McAndrew will perform live "O Viešpatie!," Adelina's aria from Act II of the opera, along with several other Lithuanian songs and arias.  This will be a special event for many people, and the organizers have worked hard to put everything together.

So what are the details of all these events?  Check out the events calendar on my recently developed website.  Everything is listed there.

I'm so happy that Julius is getting such a boost in publicity, and everyone involved in the opera is still hoping for a live U.S. premiere someday soon.  Last summer, preliminary work began on a project to adapt the work for a film-opera.  Such an ambitious goal will likely take time to achieve (and fund), but imagine how accessible that would make Julius to new audiences around the world!  In the meantime, I hope some of you will be able to attend one of these great performances.

Let's hope my next update will be sooner than later!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Julius on the Curonian Spit

Adelina's aria from Julius, "O, Viešpatie," will be performed next week in a concert on Thursday, July 28 at the Thomas Mann Memorial Museum in Nida. For those of you who may not know, Nida is a resort town on the Curonian Spit, one of the most beautiful places in Lithuania and a perfect setting for performances.

The concert, titled "NOA Portraits," will showcase arias, duets, and excerpts from operas featured in previous NOA (New Opera Action) Festivals and is part of Operomanija's summer concert series, "Operomanų Vasaros Koncertai." More details and the full schedule can be found on the series facebook event page, but here are the basic details of this concert:

NOA Portraits
July 28, 2011 at 7:00pm
Thomas Mann Memorial Museum
Skruzdynės g. 17, Nida
Admission is free

The concert will also feature music by Albertas Navickas, Rūta Vitkauskaitė, Sigitas Mickis, Jonas Sakalauskas, Lina Lapelytė, Rita Mačiliūnaitė, and Mykolas Natalevičius. I hope you can attend!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Screening in Houston

I've been thinking of an appropriate way to mark the one-year (well, a little over one year) anniversary of the premiere of Julius, so for those of you in the Houston area, I'd like to invite you to a free public screening of the opera on April 10th!

The video, which was filmed live with multiple camera angles, is of the premiere performance and includes English subtitles. For those of you interested in learning more about the behind-the-scenes processes that went into the creation and production of the opera, I will be giving a 30-minute talk before the screening. Here are the details:

Sunday, April 10 @ 1:00-3:00pm
(screening will begin at 1:30 after my talk)
Room 1133, Shepherd School of Music, Rice University

In the meantime, please visit the Julius website ( to see some production photos. And remember that if you missed the chance to be involved in the premiere last year, the producers, artists, and I are actively pursuing further Julius performances and projects that could always use extra support.

I hope to see some of you in Houston on April 10th!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Well, How Did It Go?

I know, I know. It’s been about a week since I left you hanging at the most exciting time.

How did it go? Maybe you’re asking the wrong person. My answer is based on so much more than that of any other member of the audience or cast. I can’t even begin to describe what I felt, but besides the obvious personal significance the premiere held for my family and me, I would say it was more successful than I had ever hoped. So successful, in fact, that it took me until now to get any photos to prove it. All production photos were taken by Jurgis Sakalauskas.

After over a month of daily rehearsals and two full dress rehearsals the day before and of the performance, everyone was more than ready. Minutes before the performance, everyone on the Julius team held hands and paused to reflect on all the hard work leading to this moment. A lot of people were there. All of Julius' children were there. Even the former president of Lithuania, Valdas Adamkus (himself once a DP), complete with his wife and two bodyguards, was there (we had to warn his people of the two gunshots in Act II). After one last shout of camaraderie, everyone took their places and the opera began.

The music opened quietly and slowly as all the DPs, walking past the giant crossroads signpost which anchored the staging throughout the entire opera, gradually came out on stage. After the young Julius, or Juliukas (sung by Deividas Kairys), gave a few shepherd calls, the chorus entered with its train-influenced a cappella section (which all of you have probably heard already) and the story was on its way.

Act I highlighted Julius and his family’s experience in a foreign worker’s camp in Brandenburg just before the end of WWII. There was a bombing. All the men were drinking homemade liquor. The children were playing with a grenade they found. German soldiers marched through the camp. A doctor tried to amputate Julius’ leg.

These scenes (and all scenes in the opera) were typical of the time, and, with only a few exceptions, were based on real-life events from my grandfather’s life as a DP. Between scenes, Juliukas sporadically reappeared to comment on the plot and provide insight into the psychology of the DPs. Two of the DPs, played by a couple of extremely talented dancers (Ieva Svetickaitė and Daniil Kolmin), provided commentary of their own through Marija's choreography.

Having learned that once again they were under Soviet control in post-war East Germany, the DPs made their way to the border between Soviet and British occupation zones to wait for their chance to escape. This chance came at the end of Act I, when Julius bribed three Soviet soldiers (only two soldiers in the real-life version of the story) with bottles of his homemade liquor, after which the soldiers got so drunk that the rest of the DPs were able to sneak past.

Act II, set in Camp Wehnen in Oldenburg, was a little different. Adelina opened the act with an aria describing the torment of stagnation and the lack of free will. Even when Julius showed up with a loaf of black rye bread, the smell of which had him singing an aria filled with nostalgia for home and the hope to someday return, Adelina still knew better the reality of the family’s situation.

During a lively evening of dancing and as this tension between running further and returning home boiled over among all DPs, a young man in the camp shot his girlfriend and then himself. Crippled by their desperation and the shock of such a tragedy, the DPs found a scapegoat quickly: the Jušinskas family. Julius and Adelina were subsequently interrogated by a couple of absurdly malicious agents- the last straw for Adelina.

After a bitter fight between the two main characters in which Adelina insisted they leave the camp, Julius was finally convinced to acquiesce to her demands upon the arrival of a letter sponsorship from “Uncle Joe.” As Julius sang his final aria about the feeling of defeat and pain of letting go, the DPs exited through what must have been a 30- or 40-foot door at the back of the stage. Julius and his family soon followed, and the music faded out.

The audience gave a standing ovation, flowers were heaped on Marija, Ričardas, Daiva, Tomas, Onutė, Deividas, Stasė (the choirmaster), me, and the other performers, and everyone celebrated the success till the early morning hours.

Sure, there were minor things that didn't exactly go according to plan, but only I and the performers knew about them (except for the cell phone that went off at one of the quietest moments of the opera.... pretty sure everyone knew about that). Most everything else was too good to be true. The soloists let go completely, the dancers danced beautifully, the chorus was absolutely solid (as usual!), and the orchestra played with a great deal of both energy and expressiveness. For what more could anyone have asked?

So, what’s next? Now that’s an easy question. I didn’t really notice, but someone told me the 537-seat theater was almost full. Still, that amount is hardly a fraction of the number of people and families impacted by this surprisingly little known period of history. People from around the world (at least the parts of the world within relatively easy financial reach of Vilnius) came to see the premiere, but so many just couldn’t.

What’s next is a second performance. And a third. And several more after that. I’ve commented before on the intimacy of the music community in Lithuania, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that most, if not all, the performers in Julius were friends even before rehearsals began. But no matter what their relationship was before, surely it was taken to an entirely new level after a solid month of daily rehearsals followed by a such a well-received premiere. Not only have the performers completely internalized the music, but now they are all part of the Julius team- a team eager to play together again and again and confront whatever new challenges might present themselves along the way.

That said, performances of this caliber need support. For the premiere, there was a good deal of support from both private donors as well as public entities, including the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius, but more help is always needed. The premiere generated a lot of talk in Lithuania (there were TV segments, a radio interview, and several articles and ads in various newspapers), so there is no question that a large and interested audience exists for Julius. What my job will be in the coming months is to not only help secure new performances in both Lithuania and abroad (hopefully in the U.S. sometime in the future), but also make them actually possible through fund raising.

It’s been a long process since my first post back in the summer of 2008 and I really appreciate you sticking around thus far. Please stop by often for more production photos from the premiere as well as any other news that comes along. Talk to you soon!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Premiere in Less than 8 Hours!

This will be brief, but I promised I would get back to you before the premiere. I can't believe I have a moment to write even this much.

The first dress rehearsal was yesterday (one more today before the premiere), and for the first time I got to see the production (almost) in its entirety. I can't tell you how exciting it is for almost two years of research, composing, collaboration, revision, and hard work in general to finally arrive at this culmination.

I can't wait to write my next post, when I'll give you all the exciting details. Until then, I'll leave you with a few images from rehearsals a couple of days ago to keep you in wild anticipation (hopefully).

Wish me and all 35-40 (somewhere around that number) performers luck!!!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Rehearsals, Media Coverage, and More!

With less than a week till premiere night, one can imagine how busy things must be. They certainly are.

Often lasting until the building closes for the night (half of the time, we have to be kicked out by the building manager), rehearsals take place every day. When I first arrived at the beginning of this month, they consisted mostly of choir rehearsals and coachings with the soloists, but they have since expanded to include everyone involved in the production, including the orchestra and dancers. There have even been a few rehearsals with almost everyone together at the same time, which still only gives a small, distorted snapshot of what’s in store for next week.

I can’t say enough good things about the performers. Those who have been rehearsing the longest are members of the chorus, some of whom also sing small solo roles in the opera. In number, they are a little over half the size of Jauna Muzika (the choir which sang the excerpt last year at the Vox Juventutis competition), but with the amount of time they have spent with the music and the confidence with which they now sing, there is hardly any difference. Tomas (Julius) and Onutė (Adelina) are amazing! And I may have forgotten to mention the third soloist, Deividas Kairys, the ten year-old boy and absolutely professional musician who is singing the role of Juliukas, the child version of Julius who serves as a sort of narrator or commentator between scenes. Also amazing! ... Oh, and the dancers! The DANCERS!

Let me catch my breath…


The music is sounding great, or, more humbly, at least everyone is singing and playing accurately what I wrote on the page. I’d like to think that the clarity of my instructions in the score has made this possible, but perhaps more important is Ričardas’ dedication to the music. He knows the score probably better than I do and through his conducting is certainly able to better communicate to the performers all the details therein. He may have a reserved personality, but his ease of control of the orchestra and rapport with (and, when needed, authority over) the musicians could be compared to that of the most successful conductors. I mentioned in my first post about him that I felt lucky he agreed to conduct Julius, but now I know how serious an understatement that was. He is working the hardest out of everyone to make the music as refined as possible, and, combined with the enthusiastic performers eager to get into the music, will have the audience’s ear from the very first bar.

But the music is only half of Julius. I mentioned in a my last post a bit about the scenographer, who, by the way, is crafting the perfect combination of costumes and set design, but I really need to draw your attention back to Marija, especially since the last time I really told you about her was when we had first met back in 2008. Just like Ričardas, Marija is no stranger to hard work. And as energetic as I thought she was as a librettist, nothing could have prepared me for the amount of dynamism, physicality, and sheer force she brings to her stage direction and choreography (that’s right, direction and choreography). All in Lithuanian, English, and Russian (depending on the performer), she is yelling and gesturing wildly at one moment, instantly capturing everyone’s strict attention, and less than a minute later she either is intimately explaining something to a performer or has everyone on the floor laughing. Her constant energy and frequent but seamless fluctuation between sternness and intimacy is exhausting for me to even write about. And most importantly, the results she gets are immediate and always precisely what is needed at any particular moment in the sequence of onstage events in Julius. If for some reason the audience's ears don’t like the music, then surely their eyes will savor the acting, dancing, and scenography.

In other news, Julius is in the news! In addition to a segment with video clips of rehearsals aired on national television, on Monday a press conference was held at the Arts Printing House. Everyone participating in the NOA Festival was able to say a few words about their opera(s) and, in some cases, field questions… all in Lithuanian, of course. To my nervous dismay, a barrage of questions was directed at me, but I did answer all of them using my best Lithuanian. I won’t tell you what “my best Lithuanian” really entails, but let’s just say that some of my answers were in response to questions that weren’t actually asked. Links to the Lithuanian (yes, but there are pictures, too!) online publications are here, here, and here.

Five more days!!!! Things are really heating up, but I’ll try to get back to you at least once before the big night. Now back to work!