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Vol. LXII, No. 15
 
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
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“If Music Be the Food of Love, Play On”: A Literary Courtship Becomes an Opera

Stuart Mitchner

“It began when I was born,” Renée Karol Weiss said, 84 years after the fact. This was her spontaneous response to the question, “When did you get the idea of turning a book of letters and poems into a libretto for an opera?”

The book, Theodore and Renée Weiss’s The Always Present Present, is the basis for Princeton University Professor Emeritus of Music Peter Westergaard’s one-act chamber opera, which will have its world premiere as a Center City Opera workshop production under the direction of Rhoda Levine at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia next Sunday, April 13, at 3 p.m.

Ms. Weiss’s response to the question about the opera’s origin makes perfect sense once you learn that she was born into a musical family. Her father Abe played piano, her sister Roselyn was a cellist, and her brother Robert became a violist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. As for Renée, she’s a violinist who has performed with, among others, the Oxford University Symphony, the Woodstock String Quartet, and the Princeton Chamber Orchestra. After marrying the poet and scholar Ted Weiss, who died in 2003, Ms. Weiss added writing poetry (and prose) and managing a literary quarterly with her husband to her repertoire. And when you find out that she was also a dancer who studied with Martha Graham and José Limon, you’ll appreciate why Mr. Westergaard’s one-act opera for soprano and baritone, violin, cello, and piano, also has roles for two dancers, though they will not be part of next Sunday’s workshop premiere.

“The dancers will appear in the full-scale production next fall,” said Mr. Westergaard. “And they’ll be onstage more than half the time, giving visual clues about what’s going on in the minds of the singers.”

Present or past, the opera, like the book, has it both ways. Framed in the “present” of its conception, it looks back some 60 years to the 1939-1941 courtship by letter that took place when Ted Weiss was a 24-year-old graduate student at Columbia University writing to Renée Karol, the 17-year-old “girl next door” in his hometown, Allentown, Pa. The distance between Allentown and New York is suggested by positioning the baritone and soprano at opposite ends of the stage, Ted at his desk in cramped quarters at Columbia, Renée more comfortably situated at a table at home in Allentown.

“It begins with the two of them together onstage hatching the book,” said Mr. Westergaard. “And it ends with a wedding at which they’re not quite present because they’re remembering it.” Otherwise, the only face-to-face meeting between the relatively mildly embattled Allentown Romeo and Juliet (their union provoked resistance from both families) occurs midway through the 45-minute piece when they get together in New York. The train station duet they sing begins, “So we New York this day away/to the brightlights, the night spots,/and the cabarets…/Until the symphony consumes/it all, the whirl, the world.”

The composer’s note to directors and choreographers advises that however they may choose to stage the opera they should make sure that the audience understands first “that everything they see and hear after the prologue is in fact that very anniversary present R and T [for Renée and Ted] propose to give themselves — a distillation of the memories they share,” and second, “that these memories are of a time when they were almost always separated and communicating only by letter.” The effect the composer wants is to create a musical equivalent to the dynamic of two people “almost totally dependent on their ability to summon the presence of the other in their imaginations” (the italics are Mr. Westergaard’s).

In reference to his conception of the opera, Mr. Westergaard commented that even though his music isn’t tonal, people insist that it is because “it does use a lot of the mental processes that we use in listening to tonal music, especially processes that make for longer term relationships, and that suggest the arc of memory, so that people familiar with the way time is being manipulated think they’re hearing tonal music.” With New York as a subject and setting, they’ll be hearing “some Gershwin rhythms” as well.

So Much for Retirement

In case anyone associates Stonebridge, where Ms. Weiss lives, with retirement, the fact is that she’s been busy ever since she moved there from Haslet Avenue. Not only has she been contending with the archives of the Quarterly Review of Literature (going through papers, back issues, and other business) and seeing The Always Present Present through publication, she’s been giving readings and assembling the most usable of the book’s poems and letters into a libretto. She also had the doubly good fortune to find the right composer in Mr. Westergaard (who, like Mr. Weiss, his ally in the “culture wars” of Princeton, came here in the late 1960s), and then to “bump into” the right director in the person of Ms. Levine, a classmate at Bard, where they’d both studied dance.

Director and Composer

Rhoda Levine’s career highlights include productions of Of Mice and Men; Lizzie Borden; Rigoletto; The Ballad of Baby Doe; X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X (world premiere); From the House of the Dead (American premiere); Die Soldaten; and Mathis der Maler at New York City Opera.

Besides studying with Roger Sessions, Walter Piston, Darius Milhaud, Edward Cone, and Milton Babbitt, Mr. Westergaard taught at Columbia University, Amherst College, and for some 35 years at Princeton before his retirement in 2001. Again, “retirement” is a misnomer. With an opera based on The Tempest under his belt, he took on no less a work than Moby Dick for his Scenes from an Imaginary Opera, produced in 2004. His most recent work is based on another classic, Alice in Wonderland, which will be performed in Princeton on May 22 at Richardson Auditorium and on June 3 and 4 in New York at Symphony Space. All three performances are at 8 p.m.

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