It was good to see how quickly classical music and opera picked themselves up at the start of the pandemic and moved activity online. But even more heartening has been the advance to devising innovative projects.
Choosing the right opera to produce online is half the skill. For its latest offering, Opera Philadelphia is presenting David B Little’s Soldier Songs, original version 2006, revised 2011, in a new cinematic film directed by Johnathan McCullough and produced by James Darrah.
Until now, the opera has been seen in the theatre, but it may have found its true home here. The work is less a standard opera than a multimedia collage, weaving together spoken reminiscences, visual elements and some intensely concentrated music. Little talked with family members and others about their experiences in wars over several generations and this element of oral history runs through the opera, keeping it rooted in first-hand wartime memories.
There is just one character, sung by McCullough, who stands for the soldier past, present and future. We see him initially as a young man, cutting his 18th birthday cake, keen to fulfil his childhood ambition to be a soldier (“killing all the bad guys with funny names”). Once in action, he is overwhelmed by the reality of war, which is nothing like the video games of his youth (“Someone yell cut! Where’s the director?”). He survives to mourn the loss of a son and face the long-lasting pain from the aftermath of war.
The music, composed for amplified septet, is drawn from the sounds and rhythms of battle. An onslaught of “steel rain” from the sky becomes a cacophony of sirens and whistles. At the end, the voices of distressed soldiers pile one on top of another, creating a multi-layered babble, the very modern equivalent of the closing ensemble in a 19th-century Italian opera. At its best, Soldier Songs gets inside the head.
In a similarly innovative vein, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s online series Front Row includes some imaginative concerts, filmed in an aircraft hangar to allow social distancing. Its latest, the two-part For the People, explores how American composers have responded to the country’s soundscape in the past 100 years.
Five women composers are among the line-up. It is a shame many of the works are only represented by extracts, but the fast procession of numbers is at least easy to digest. The highlights include a movement from the String Quartet No. 1 by Florence Price, most heartwarming of African-American composers from the past century. Libby Larsen’s Jazz Variations for solo bassoon is entertaining. Jessie Montgomery’s Strum for string quartet, written in 2006-2012, shows the flair of one of the leading African American composers of today.
‘Soldier Songs’ is available on demand to May 31, operaphila.org
‘Front Row’ is free to watch online to July 22, pittsburghsymphony.org