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Opera Cabal Performs Ken Ueno's AEOLUS at National Sawdust

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There is a change happening in opera. Once the province of coloratura sopranos and heldentenors belting at the top of their lungs, opera is beginning to embrace all sorts of singing and instrumentation, including colloquial styles you might associate more with Music Hall of Williamsburg than the Met. Du Yun's Angel's Bone, which just won the Pulitzer Prize, weaves together everything from plainchant and Renaissance music to screaming punk rock songs (sung by Elysian Fields' Jennifer Charles.)

Ken Ueno's AEOLUS, which had it's premiere last Friday at National Sawdust, is a series of impressionistic scenes cobbled together from Greek mythology, literary fragments and Ueno's own hazy memories. Ueno appeared throughout, both in ponderous voiceover and in person, wandering around the stage mumbling and throat singing through a megaphone, occasionally playing a drum sample on his iPhone. FLUX Quartet played music that alternated between eerie dissonance and Morton Feldman-like drone. 

But, the clear standout of this performance was Majel Connery, who sings in a sultry, low voice that sounds like a cross between Fiona Apple and Portishead's Beth Gibbons. Connery's stylized voice is many things: intoxicating, exotic, hypnotic (as in the song/aria/whatever "There is No One Like You"). What it is not, by the narrowest of definitions, is operatic, though Connery did demonstrate moments of lyricism as she navigated AEOLUS' higher ranges. 

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Britten's War Requiem at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine

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"My subject is War, and the pity of War.

The Poetry is in the pity ...

All a poet can do today is warn."

- Wilfred Owen

At first, I thought the timing of Thursday's performance of Benjamin Britten's War Reqiuem at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine - in early Spring, with the forsythia and daffodils sprouting - was a bit odd. But, as the Rev. Patrick Malloy, St. John the Divine's Canon for Liturgy & the Arts, reminded us before the performance, April 6 was the 100th anniversary of the day the United States entered into World War I - the same war that Wilfred Owen, whose poetry Britten weaves through the Latin Mass for the Dead, fought and died in. Rev. Malloy also made note of Tuesday's chemical weapons attack in Syria, emphasizing that the horrors of war are still around us. (More on that later.)

The War Requiem, as noted in several previous performances, is without question one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century: a majestic work of searing power and sublime, oracular rapture. Here, the combined choirsters of St. John the Divine, the Manhattan School of Music Choir, and the Oratorio Society of New York - all led by Director of Cathedral Music Kent Tritle - delivered a visceral performance that was done in only by the overly-reverberant acoustics of the soaring cathedral interior (which were also apparently an issue at the work's premiere in 1962.) Among the soloists, Met Soprano Susanna Phillips - who impressed in Britten's Peter Grimes in 2013 - was the clear standout; she was joined by tenor John Matthew Myers and baritone Matthew Worth.

I was grabbing a slice nearby afterwards when a TV broadcast the news that we had just launched a military strike against Syria,m; it had apparently taken place during the performance. Britten's message at that moment could not have been more resonant - or more foreboding. No matter how many times we hear it, we never seem to learn.

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IMG_3935Occasionally, I use this space to reflect on the passing of a notable musician or composer, someone whose contributions deserve to be remembered long after they're gone. Today, I want to talk about my friend Kit Gill, who lost her long, hard-fought battle with cancer on Monday. Kit wasn't a musician - in her younger days, she was a fashion model and editor - but I've never met anyone who cared more deeply about music, or was more generous towards those who made it.

Kit loved all of the arts: music, dance, fine art, fashion. But opera was her passion, and she was a regular presence at the Met, as well as opera houses around the world. (She boasted of having attended 26 consecutive Bayreuth Festivals, which is a lot even for Wagner fans.) If Kit enjoyed a particular production, you could bet on seeing her at every performance, including dress rehearsals. 

In many ways, Kit was unapologetically old school. She had no cell phone, no computer: only a fax machine (!) and a landline. She would send me reviews the old fashioned way: by clipping them out of the paper edition of the Times and sending them snail mail. But, Kit was no fossil. She read widely, and pursued her own blend of radical (chic) politics, finding solidarity with everyone from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Kit had hundreds of friends and thousands of stories that rivaled those of Forrest Gump. There was the time she had the entire Bolshoi Ballet over to her 1820's farmhouse in the Berkshires for a vodka-fueled party after their performance at the Pillow. There were the late nights singing karaoke in SoHo with René Pape. Or weekends spent hanging out at Max's Kansas City with her friend Bobby Short. Or how the billionaire Edgar Bronfman - whom Kit dated after her divorce - would fly up to the Berkshires and land his helicopter on her croquet lawn. 

Improbably, I fell into Kit's rarefied circle of friends. We met in 2011 at a reception hosted by the Wagner Society - of which she was Vice President - at a restaurant near Lincoln Center celebrating the Met's new (and, according to Kit, loathsome) Ring cycle. I'm not entirely sure what Kit saw in me - perhaps she was excited at the prospect of recruiting someone who wasn't in their 70's, or wearing plastic horns. Before long, I was paying Kit regular visits at her richly decorated apartment on 5th Avenue, where she alternated between serving me glasses of wine (she didn't drink herself) and fighting to keep her dogs Happy and Nikki off of the upholstery.

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