Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Premiere Date Confirmed!

Hi! It's been a while, but the good news is that my complete preoccupation with composing and preparing the score is what has prevented me from keeping this blog updated. I got back to the U.S. in August with most of the opera completed, but I quickly learned that there was (and is!) still much work to be done.

But now let's get to the really great news to which the title of this post refers: a premiere performance of Julius has been scheduled for March 23, 2010 in Vilnius! The opera will be the opening work of the third annual NOA (Naujosios Operos Akcija) Festival, which runs March 23-28 and is devoted entirely to new opera. I just sent the conductor and festival director the piano/vocal score, and soon I'll know who the soloists will be.

From now until March, I'll be working on the full score for Julius and doing what I can to promote and build support for the premiere performance. In fact, if anyone reading would like to help make the premiere as memorable as possible through a contribution, please don't hesitate to contact me at JuliusTheOpera@gmail.com.

Stay tuned for future posts about the soloists and performers, the conductor, the festival and its organizers, the performance venue, and the production itself. And if this is your first visit to this blog, don't forget to read my previous posts to learn more details about the creation of the opera and share in all the fun and interesting experiences I've had over the past year or so since the project's beginning.

This is an incredibly exciting time for me and everyone involved, and I hope you'll follow along over the next few months as we bring this work to life!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Competition Results (and Recording)!

The Vox Juventutis '09 results were announced the day of the concert, but I wanted to wait until I got a copy of the live recording before posting a blog entry. First of all, the entire performance, which included 12 brand new works for unaccompanied choir, was professional, well attended, and very enjoyable. The pieces, written by both Lithuanian and foreign composers, showed a wide variety of styles that kept the concert interesting and the audience eager to hear each new work.

Now for the good news: the excerpt I described in my last post won both 2nd place as well as the "Jauna Muzika" award for the choir's favorite work! Most importantly, I now have something you can finally hear for yourself. Visit my MySpace page and click on Dipukų Rauda (DPs' Lament) in the player window to hear the recording from the concert.

The 1st place award went to Lithuanian composer Albertas Navickas for his work, È. Albertas, who also studied with Osvaldas Balakauskas, recently finished his master's degree at the Academy. As I write, I am listening to his Iconic for orchestra, performed last month by the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra in a concert of orchestral works by graduating master's students. After hearing many of his works during my time here, one feature of his music (among other great qualities) that continues to win me over is the pacing of each work. I can't help but feel a sense of patience every time I hear something of his.

3rd place was shared by two composers. Justina Šikšnelytė, a Lithuanian composer, just finished her first year in the bachelor's program at the Academy. Her work, Aš Gimiau (I was Born), with text by the composer, grows from a series of staggered/echoed melodies that sets the rather melancholy tone for the entire piece, eventually ending with a soprano solo followed by whispers from the choir. Šikšnelytė, I recently discovered, is also a talented jazz singer, and that influence makes its way into some of her concert works. Also winning 3rd place was Turkish composer Ali Somay (whose last name means "pure moon!"), a bachelor's student studying here through the Erasmus program. I heard three of his works while I have been here, and each dsiplayed his curiosity and creativity by means of unorthodox or extended playing techniques. His choral work, Zaman Yok, also with text by the composer, was no exception. And among the breath tremolos, tongue clicks, and hyper-registral singing (singing so high or low that there is no engagement of the vocal cords at all), this challenging work was still grounded in some very beatiful pitched material.

At the end of the concert, the audience voiced their opinion as they were allowed to vote for their favorite work. After the votes were counted, the "audience favorite" prize went to Wieslaw Sobieski, also a student at the Academy, for his excrutiatingly beautiful work, Rauda (Lament).

The press release (in Lithuanian) can be found here.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Excerpt Performance in Vilnius!

No matter what I might tell you in writing about the music, there is nothing like actually hearing it. On June 18, if any of you happen to be in Vilnius, the award-winning Lithuanian chamber choir Jauna Muzika will sing a short choral excerpt from the opera as part of their annual "Vox Juventutis" competition for young composers. Details of the performance can be found here.

Regardless of the outcome of the competition, more important is, first, the quality of performance the music will get, and second, that the performance will be recorded. If you didn't explore the link above thoroughly, the choir has a few audio excerpts from some of its album releases here. And for those of you with a subscription to the Naxos site, you can listen to their recording of Osvaldas Balakauskas' (my teacher) Requiem here.

Ultimately, what this means is that all of you out there who might be following this blog will finally get to hear some music!

The excerpt, titled Dipukų Rauda (DPs' Lament) as a standalone concert piece, is taken from the first scene of Act I, just after the short prologue that opens the entire opera. In a real opera staging, the chorus is made up of DPs (Displaced Persons) of different Eastern European origin, crammed together into a train car. Despite the diverse makeup of the group, they all are fleeing the same danger, are uncertain about their future, and share the same feelings of fear and anxiety (please forgive the following rudimentary and completely unpoetic translation from the original Lithuanian text):

Baimė kausto mintis - Fear grips the mind
Ryžtas trypia širdis. - Determination tramples the heart.
Sunkias beržo sula - The birch sap is strained
Ne namų o speigų - No home but hard frost
Tolimųjų kraštų - The distant land
Mūsų siaubo akių - Our eyes of horror
Pamestų tarp miškų - Lost among forests
Sutryptų be jausmų. - Trampled without feeling.
Ką vaikai pamatys - What will the children see
Jei nebėgsi tolyn, - If you don't flee further,
Kur paslėpsi akis - Where will you hide your eyes
Nuo likimo nagų? - From fate's clutches?
Gal kitur bus geriau - Maybe elsewhere will be better
Gal kiti bus geri. - Maybe others will be kind.
Baimė kausto mintis - Fear grips the mind
Ryžtas trypia širdis. - Determination tramples the heart.

Yes, my translation is a direct and clumsy one, but one can imagine some florid yet tasteful English poetry in its place. The text is pretty straightforward, but I should explain a couple of lines that may not be entirely clear in meaning.

Determination tramples the heart: The word "ryžtas" in the Lithuanian-English dictionary is most closely translated as "resolution," "determination," or "strong purpose." But if I were to use a whole phrase to more accurately translate the word, then it would be "the choice one makes of his own free will," which gives a much better picture of the line's reference. In other words, as one makes the agonizing decision to leave his home, perhaps for good, he must overcome the inevitable and instinctual feelings of anxiety and homesickness that will accompany such a move, and his determination to follow through with this decision contradicts everything his heart tells him.

The distant land: I know my translation sounds like a History Channel special about Columbus' voyage to America, but this line actually refers to Siberia, infamous over the past three or four centuries for its Russian (and more recently in history, Soviet) labor camps to which millions of people, including Russians, were exiled. Towards the end of the first Soviet occupation of Lithuania (1940-41), thousands of Lithuanians began to be deported to Siberia, where they joined the many groups and nationalities who had already suffered the same fate.

The text of the excerpt may be brief, but it effectively sets the underlying tone of the opera. It is this tension between listening to one's heart and making painful but perhaps life-saving choices that drives the plot (I say "plot," but I'm also talking about the lives of millions of real people) forward.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

An End-of-Winter Update

I could have called it "A Spring Update," but snow continues to fall as I write this entry. The winter has been long, and last month's burning of Morė, the effigy representing winter, apparently guaranteed the hasty arrival of spring. A long, dark winter does have its bright side, which is that no one feels obligated to go outside without a good reason. I have therefore been able to spend much of the last couple of months really focused on writing music.

But without actually scanning and posting my sketches, in writing there is little I can tell you about the music itself. What I can tell you is that I continue to find a wealth of inspiration not only in the music I hear in Vilnius, but also in the language itself.

Unlike Spanish, for instance, the Lithuanian language is devoid of any regular system of syllable stress, and the fact that the language utilizes some of the most ancient linguistic characteristics and numerous inflections makes possible an incredibly nuanced yet flexible form of expression. This combination opens up many possibilities in terms of creatively setting Lithuanian to music, but it also highlights the care that must be taken, especially in such a text-driven and drama-dependent work as an opera, to preserve the intended meaning and tone of any one line of text.

You might ask, "How are you able to understand the complexities and nuance of the language without being a native speaker?" The answer is that I don't. I made multiple audio recordings of Marija Simona "acting" the parts of the libretto, which helps when it comes to making many compositional choices, but regardless of the inflection and intonation I can objectively glean from the recording, there will always be certain signifiers that can only be truly understood by a native speaker.

But this may not be a bad thing. A fellow composer in Baltimore once lamented the tendency among composers to write vocal music that so closely reflects the natural rhythm and inflection of the language. I, on the other hand, saw nothing wrong with the trend and considered the language itself full of multiple implications for the music. I still do, but as of this week, much less so.

What changed my mind was a repeat viewing of Peter Eötvös' opera, Love and Other Demons. Never mind that the predominantly English libretto was written by a Hungarian author; I thought the English was practically flawless. On top of that, Eötvös understands and speaks very good English himself. But unlike the first time I saw the opera, on Thursday I picked up on some very subtle text-music relationships that revealed the composer as a non-native speaker. There was no misplaced syllable stress or awkward phrasing, but rather a sung English that to my ears was devoid of any aural signifier that might point to a specific English-speaking culture.

I recently read a BBC article that referred to this kind of English as "globish," and while the term applies mainly to English that is free of any vocabulary, metaphor, or humor that might cause misunderstanding between two people from different cultures, I wonder if the term could also include specifically aural nuances such as intonation, rhythm, etc. that might be particular to any one region or culture.

For me, this lack of recognizable, culture-specific nuance is what made the music interesting and fresh. A native English speaker could deliberately alter the music to counter the natural delivery of a line of English text, but I doubt the effect would be the same. In Love and Other Demons, the text is not set in an "unnatural" or "unusual" way, but rather in a manner that is so neutral (at least to American ears) that the listener is likely to detect no cultural code acting as mediation (and perhaps even a hindrance) between the text itself and its musical representation.

Maybe I'm preemptively defending the compositional decisions I've been making in my own opera, but if my musical treatment of Lithuanian text reveals my non-native background, then perhaps I have reason to celebrate.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Story

I've been waiting anxiously to write in more detail about the opera's plot, and now, after many reviews, changes, cuts, and additions, the libretto is more or less in its final form. But rather than writing the event-by-event synopsis, I'll just give an overview of the story.

After a brief prologue shedding light on Julius Jušinskas' (my grandfather's) childhood in Lithuania, Act I opens in a foreign labor camp in Eastern Germany just before the end of WWII. The camp's inhabitants, a mixture of several nationalities but mostly citizens of countries annexed by the Soviet Union, live not only under the stress of difficult manual labor and the constant threat of Allied bombings, but also with the feelings of homesickness, rootlessness, and alienation so familiar to displaced persons (DPs). Some of my grandfather's worst stories came from his family's life in Brandenburg, and by all accounts it was a terrible and dangerous place for anyone, especially a family (by the end of the war, three of his four children had been born).

By the end of the first act, the war has ended and, to the horror of everyone in the camp, they learn that once again they are under the control of the Soviet Army, the very danger from which they had originally fled. Tormented by homesickness and constant exodus, yet fearful of the consequences of remaining under Soviet rule, most choose to escape to Allied-controlled Western Germany. With the Russian occupation zone border closed to those attempting to flee, the Jušinskas family manages to slip through with the help of a bribe.

Act II takes place in a DP camp in Western Germany around 1950-51, the last years before most countries will close their doors to DPs, who will then either be forced to repatriate or begin life on their own in the crippled postwar German economy. The DPs are terrified at the thought of returning to a Soviet-controlled homeland, and the vast majority choose to stay in the safety and stability of the camp. Life in the camp is not easy, but everyone is guaranteed food, shelter, schooling, and the stubborn belief that someday they will be able to return to a liberated homeland.

However, while physical conditions in the camp are tolerable, the psychological toll wrought by hopelessness and the lack of free will is mounting. With the already small and bureaucracy-laden window of opportunity to emigrate narrowing, the DPs scramble to win their own ticket to the U.S., Australia, Canada, and other countries with immigration quotas that could not possibly accommodate the massive number of hopeful families. In their desperation, many attempt to improve their chances by secretly swapping chest x-rays or accusing others of wartime collaboration and other crimes, while those most psychologically strained resort to suicide.

Pressure mounts after Adelina (my grandmother) and Julius are maliciously interrogated by agents in the camp. Julius obstinately holds onto his dream of returning home, but Adelina's persuasion, along with a last-minute letter of sponsorship from Julius' distant "Uncle Joe" in Chicago, finally convinces him to let go. With mixed feelings of relief, optimism, nostalgia, and fear, the family boards a ship bound for New York, leaving behind a decade of uncertainty, isolation, and dejection.

While some scenes are fictional (though definitely not implausible), others are based on my grandfather's actual experiences. For instance, Marija Simona included in the libretto an almost absurdist scene based on an incident in Brandenburg when an unlicensed German "doctor" tried to amputate my grandfather's injured leg. And the last scene in Act I and one of my favorite stories is how my grandfather managed to bribe the guards at the border of the Russian occupation zone:

Hundreds of people were at the border, but no one was allowed through. After pulling one of the guards aside, my grandfather withdrew a bottle of his homemade liquor from under his coat. The guard gladly accepted, but motioned to the other guard at the post, as if saying, "what about my friend over there?" My grandfather then pulled another bottle from under his coat, thus securing his family's passage into the British occupation zone. Minutes later, the family was picked up by British soldiers and taken to a warehouse just inside the British zone, where they were to stay until morning. During the night, everyone woke up to an extraordinary commotion. Hundreds of additional refugees had made it into the British zone. Later the family learned why so many of them had escaped: the guards had gotten completely drunk.

The Jušinskas family lived in Wehnen, a DP camp in Oldenburg, in the British zone, for almost six years before they finally received an offer of sponsorship from Uncle Joe. My mother was born there, and my aunts and uncles remember it well. While their time in Brandenburg before the end of the war was dangerous and physically debilitating, their stay in Wehnen was overshadowed by suspicions, accusations, rivalries, jealousies, and bigotry among desperate camp members. People did commit suicide, and Julius and Adelina were, in fact, interrogated for some unknown reason, but whatever that reason or the outcome was, it was the last push my grandmother needed to convince my grandfather to emigrate. The photo to the right is of the Jušinskas family in Wehnen, ca. 1947 (from left to right: Edita, Adelina [with my mother, Zita, in her lap], Julius, Irena, and Julius, Jr.).

Once the libretto has been thoroughly reviewed by several pairs of eyes, I'll give a more detailed synopsis. I have already begun to write the music, and now that the dramatic structure and pacing of the opera is all but set in stone, I'm looking forward to discovering where it takes the music.