He/She Review

Chicago Opera Theater concluded its 2011 spring festival season over the weekend at Millenium Park’s Harris Theater with He/She, a performance of two classical song cycles by two different composers unified by connecting themes of dramatic love and a provocatively modern visual narrative.

He/She is a joint performance of Robert Schumann’s Frauenliebe Und Leben (A Woman’s Love and Life) and Leoš Janáček’s The Diary Of One Who Disappeared. Each piece explores the drama of love from different gender perspectives. Schumann’s female character (She) abandons her family and holds her lover to the highest regard, only to almost immediately experience the pain of loss and death. Janáček’s lonely farm boy is entranced and seduced by a gypsy in the woods and exiles himself in disgrace after siring a gypsy son. Hearing the two narratives unfold together, the audience is invited to decide, who suffers more?

Schumann and Janáček are two starkly different composers. Schumann’s song cycle is measured and stately, with logical, albeit predictable progressions. Janáček is bombastic and at times discordant, offering folksy themes, sudden dynamic shifts and explosions of emotion. Schumann is not particularly challenging music; even for a classical novice like me it was easy to see the comparison between it and the bombastic composition of Janáček. Yet in its simplicity Schumann nonetheless demands a firm, articulate, dynamic range and thoughtful collaboration between piano and voice, and in this respect accompanist Clark Terry and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano executed the Frauenliebe Und Leben wonderfully. Cano pushed warmth and maturity into the almost teenage sentimentalism of Schumann’s lovelorn character, matching the heart-racing highs and heart-rending lows of Terry’s accompaniment.

In contrast, Janáček’s compositional style feels more unstructured and in many cases tends to mimic the rhythmic patterns of excited speech. Terry returned to the stage to perform the Janáček, and the accompaniment often danced circles around the singers, eliciting both a sense of freedom and panic. Joseph Kaiser, with a bright and boomy tenor, pushed his range to its limits as he darted between hauntingly beautiful lamentations and frantic, arpeggiated elation. The piece was enhanced by members of the Chicago Opera Theater’s Young Artists Program, providing additional vocal support both on stage and in an off-stage chorus.

The task of conceiving a modern staging of a musical style traditionally performed in the home is a difficult one at best. Creative Advisor Gerard McBurney and Projection Designer Hillary Leben used a giant projection to provide a visual narrative to accompany the musical performance. In effort to avoid distraction from the visual images, superscripts were not shown. Instead, short phrases were picked from the composition and intermingled with the images. Each song cycle was given its own treatment, the Schumann given a nineteenth century faded black-and-white photograph look, with a feminine script similar to Emily Dickinson. Janáček’s cycle utilized many natural images of farmland and forests with ethereal filters and stark coloring, with what was referred to by McBurney as a ‘masculine, lower class, almost graffiti” writing style.


Artistically the writing and images were striking and beautiful, if at times a bit too haunting. Images appeared and disappeared with ghostly effect, and creative use of video clips created illusions of still images that abruptly came to life. Ironically, Leben did such excellent work creating a modern visual narrative that simultaneously performing the source material was more distracting than integrative.  

For information on Chicago Opera Theater’s 2012 season, visit chicagooperatheater.org or call 312-704-8414. All images courtesy of Liz Lauren.

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