Praise for DORA
I have known of the existence of Dora since soon after its inception. As the artistic director of a conservatory opera program that looks to do at least one contemporary piece each year–many of them in a midtown Baltimore theatre that prides itself on adventurous programming–I am always on the lookout for chamber operas on challenging subjects, and especially those that offer varied roles for women. At the time I first contacted Melissa Shiflett, I don’t believe the opera had even been given a concert performance. Indeed, I think I looked at it on three or four separate occasions, reluctantly putting it aside because it did not match the vocal or instrumental forces I had available at that time. But in the season of 2008-09, the stars must have been in alignment, giving me the privilege of presenting the second staged production of a work that deserves to be done many times more.
I should also say that I was both attracted to the strong sexual themes in the opera and alarmed by them. Attracted because Theatre Project, Baltimore, our host space, has a reputation for edgy and provocative programming. Attracted also because younger performers can often bring an immediacy to physical relationships on the stage. But alarmed because, as a professor working with students, I did not wish to push them beyond their comfort zone. The sexual pathology of many of the characters in the opera is (fortunately) beyond the experience of most of us, and I wanted to keep it that way. I had no wish to become like Sigmund Freud himself who, in the view of Nancy Fales Garrett and Melissa Shiflett, pushed Dora into pathologies that went far beyond the admittedly egregious behavior of the adults around her.
But the amazing thing was that, as we worked on the opera, the sensational elements gradually became incorporated into the truth of the whole, and no longer stood out. When we started, for example, the overlapping adulterous liaisons seemed decadent, outré, even perverted. But the more we got into the characters, the more we discovered a vein of sorrow that went far beyond mere self-indulgence. For instance, when we finally saw the last-act love scene between Herr Bauer and Frau K as a lament for lives stolen from them by circumstance, the insight radiated back to all the scenes that preceded it, allowing the performers to approach their characters with understanding and even some sympathy.
Not that this meant playing down the more outrageous elements in the piece; far from it. There are some surprising gear-shifts in style, as when Dora is first seen with her father visiting their neighbors the Ks, and the cross-currents of desire are expressed first in a pulsing ensemble and then in a raucous waltz. Such moments are among the musical highlights of the opera, but I think I had been hearing them as divertissements, set pieces to lighten the texture. But I soon discovered that if we played them with full enjoyment of their strangeness, they would not only emerge as central to the basic storytelling, but also reveal something important about the characters involved. Often I would think of some staging idea (as for the duet between the two fathers in Act II, or the quintet that follows) that I hesitated to put into practice because it was too outrageous, only to find when we got to the stage, it seemed the most natural thing in the world!
We were fortunate in having a very low budget and a restricted space in which to perform. As a result, we had no way of reproducing the many changes of locale called for in the score. Somewhere along the line, I hit on the idea of staging the whole opera in Freud’s study, giving him a large desk on wheels that could be used as a couch, or bed, or operating table, or furniture item in the other scenes. I also suspended a number of nude female mannequins above and around the space. By thus disclaiming any attempt at physical realism, I was able to focus instead upon the inner reality of the characters. Equally important, I was able to show much of the action in the other scenes in terms of Freud’s interpretation or invention–a perspective that was reinforced by bringing him onstage as an observer during the scenes of Dora’s seduction.
When all the brilliantly sensational elements have fallen into place, you are left with a quiet inner truth that quite frankly both surprised and delighted me. I was fully prepared to see Freud as the villain of the piece, as the authors at one point had seemed to do. But (perhaps because I was lucky in the guest artist engaged to play the role), I found myself seeing him with sympathy, as the victim of his own theories, as much bewildered by what he does not understand as excited by what he does. And Dora herself, after being so long the victim, emerges with a quiet strength that never ceases to amaze me. The aria in which she recounts her second dream–close in detail but utterly different in tone from the version that appears in Freud’s book–is one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry and music that I can think of in contemporary opera. Suddenly we had opera putting aside all the things that it is notorious for–spectacle, sensation, and high drama- and doing what it does uniquely well: taking us into the soul of a fellow human being. It was a moment that validated the whole undertaking and made it so eminently worthwhile.
Roger Brunyate, Artistic Director, The Peabody Chamber Opera, Peabody Conservatory of The Johns Hopkins Institute, 6/09
Saturday’s cast gave Dora an excellent performance, with superlative singing and fine acting through the story’s considerable emotional range. The orchestra likewise provided estimable support in their reading of the conservative tonal score. Expert vocal writing showed the singers to effect in solo arias and ensemble numbers, with the sextet “What Do Women Want?” an especially well-constructed example. The use of violin harmonics beneath the disturbing revelations of the K’s children was a notable touch of effective orchestration.
-Mark A. Lackey, composer, marklackey. blogspot.com/2009/04/dora-at-
The composer’s knack for instrumental coloring is highly admirable. The orchestration, neatly accented by guitar and subtle percussion, gives Dora its most consistently rewarding element…Roger Brunyate directed the action fluidly, making use of just a couple of props and gaining atmosphere from Douglas Nielson’s lighting design.
Tim Smith, weblogs.baltimoresun.com/2009
Bill (Bill Nerenberg–director of Peabody Presents at the Peabody Institute) and I attended The Peabody Chamber Opera production ofDora at Theatre Project of Baltimore last night. Neither of us felt like going out, but are we glad we did. This is a new opera with a young and very professional cast, a live orchestra of Peabody students, and the direction of the very skilled Roger Brunyate. In total, this production proves that you don’t have to have a mammoth budget with live elephants in order to have first class opera.
The story is a very famous one, Freud’s first patient, a young woman, who is suffering from hysteria. The two families involved from Victorian Vienna rededine dysfunctional. Makes all the rest of our families look NORMAL!(?) Music is superb, voices are great, staging is imaginative.
-Dorothy L. Rosenthal, MD, FIAC
Professor of Pathology, Oncology and Gynecology/Obstetrics
Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions