Arts

'The No One's Rose' blooms at Stanford Live

Avant-garde opera, based on WWII survivor's poetry, takes on new dimension amid pandemic

Composer and American Modern Opera Company (AMOC) artistic director Matthew Aucoin created the music for 'The No One's Rose,' presented by AMOC in partnership with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Stanford Live. Courtesy American Modern Opera Company.

When the world splinters after a cataclysmic event, how does a poet, an artist, a dancer or a composer move forward without plunging into hopelessness or wallowing in optimistic platitudes? Those are questions Paul Celan, a Holocaust survivor, wrestled with through his poetry and composer Matthew Aucoin raises in "The No One's Rose," a music, dance and theater piece based on the poems of Celan (1920-1970).

Celan, a Romanian-born Jewish poet, survived the Shoah, which claimed the lives of his family. In the postwar years, Celan settled in Paris, creating hundreds of poems in German that grapple with war, blood, death and rebirth. But the ensuing guilt and trauma led him to die by suicide at the age of 50. Aucoin includes three of Celan's poems in "The No One's Rose," which has its world premiere Aug. 25-29 at Stanford's Bing Concert Hall, presented by American Modern Opera Company (AMOC) in partnership with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Stanford Live.

"Psalm," one of the three Celan poems, offers the metaphor of a devastated postwar congregation as a "no one's rose," which despite everything continues to bloom. Like the poems themselves, Aucoin said his music includes both "darkness and light, and we don't want to be too simplistic — about one side or the other winning out." It's also about "joy and warning signs of the challenges that lie ahead."

The show, which was six years in the making, is the first performance before a live audience at Bing Concert Hall since March 2020. "The No One's Rose" was originally scheduled to premiere in October 2020, to commemorate the 100th birthday of Celan. Amid the pandemic, the piece evolved.

"The artists of AMOC and I wanted to make a dance and theater piece about how you rebuild after the last year," Aucoin said during a phone interview from Vermont, where performers rehearsed and bonded earlier this summer. "We built a kind of scene out of their experiences."

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In "The No One's Rose," dancers, instrumentalists and singers also serve as storytellers, offering glimpses of their lives much as the pilgrims do in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," or the dancers in Broadway's "A Chorus Line." Violinist Keir GoGwilt, for example, talks about the emotional impact of performing via Zoom to hospitalized COVID patients around the world.

Zack Winokur, dancer and co-artistic director of American Modern Opera Company, says that in 'The No One's Rose,' performers are "characters on stage with us as well as music makers." Courtesy American Modern Opera Company.

The performers are "characters onstage with us as well as music makers," said Zack Winokur, a trained dancer who co-founded AMOC with Aucoin in 2017 and directs the performance. Just as the separations between dancers, vocalists and instrumentalists are blurred, so are those between performers and audiences. Because of their pandemic experiences, "the people onstage are navigating the same circumstances as those who are watching," he added in a Zoom interview.

In dance as well, choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith seeks to create links with the audience. "I love to take everyday movements that are familiar to everyone and then amplify them until they become something else," she wrote in an email.

Aucoin, Winokur and Smith describe the creation of the show as a collaborative process. During weeks of rehearsals in Vermont before coming to Stanford in mid-August, participants became a community, dining together and sharing their lives. As the show opens, with performers seated casually around a dining room table, Winokur said he expects audiences will pick up on the raucous mood that spurred the creative process.

Smith agreed, emphasizing the "collaborative" nature of the piece's development. It "doesn't just come from a few minds. It comes from the collective imagination in the room."

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Artists making up AMOC's "collective imagination" are soprano Julia Bullock, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, tenor Paul Appleby and bass-baritone Davóne Tines. In addition to Smith, dancers include Or Schraiber, Julia Eichten and Yiannis Logothetis. Instrumentalists include GoGwilt, cellist Coleman Itzkoff, and percussionist Jonny Allen.

Aucoin, a MacArthur Fellow, is both writer and composer. He was introduced to the work of Celan at Harvard, where he graduated summa cum laude in 2012, majoring in English. At Harvard, he studied poetry with Jorie Graham, whose poem "Deep Water Trawling" is also included in the piece.

Members of American Modern Opera Company (AMOC) perform in a previous original production by the company, which is presenting the world premiere of "The No One's Rose" at Stanford Live in partnership with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Courtesy Carlos Cardona/American Modern Opera Company.

Celan, he observes, "always struck me as a poet whose work is very close to music." For one, the poems "are very fragmentary — little islands or oases within a vast ocean of silence." For another, "I think he felt the need in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust to reinvent the German language as a mother tongue, but he felt alienated because of the taint of Nazism. In his middle and later poetry, he is looking very hard at individual words and renaming them, treating them as musical objects."

Aucoin said his decision to major in English was not so unusual, adding that two Harvard graduates in the show also majored in other fields: Violinist GoGwilt, also a poet and music historian, majored in literature, and bass-baritone Tines, a sociology major, created a music video about Breonna Taylor, who was killed by a police officer in her home in Louisville, Kentucky.

"There's a funny culture at Harvard, where a lot of the serious musicians wind up majoring in something else," said Aucoin, noting that he's "drawn to writing vocal music. It's always felt very natural to me to build on a text. A poem is like a piece of firewood that music sets aflame. Some composers regard words with suspicion." Aucoin sees poetry and music as "two languages. I try to be fluent in both." Opera is often regarded with similar suspicion. Aucoin hopes to erase some of that through his forthcoming book "The Impossible Art: Adventures in Opera."

When Aucoin began composing "The No One's Rose," his "original impulse was to juxtapose Bach with Paul Celan," contrasting the goodness of God and the universe and the "tonal certainty" in Bach with the uncertainty in Celan's poetry. But his piece, which begins with music from Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," continued to take on new directions.

As far as his own music, Aucoin said it "owes a lot more to beloved Bay Area resident John Adams than to some older composers." That said, the avant-garde AMOC will be performing with the Bay Area-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, best known for classical and baroque repertoire, using period instruments.

"I really admire what Philharmonia Baroque does by introducing new pieces," Aucoin said. "I don't see a contradiction. Anybody who writes music for a violin is working with an old instrument." The "color and texture and blends are a lot of fun to work with." Besides, he said, "I'm literally married to a baroque musician, bassoonist Clay Zeller-Townson.'

Now rehearsing while masked at Bing, the cast continues to grapple with the uncertainty and challenges of the pandemic. For Aucoin, if God forbid the performance at Stanford is put on hold, what happens next?

"In a way, my heaviest lifting is done," he said. "I can sleep peacefully at night. I feel the piece will come to life eventually."

"The No One's Rose" will premiere Wednesday and Thursday, Aug. 25 and 26, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 29, at 2:30 p.m. at Bing Concert Hall, 327 Lasuen St., Stanford. Tickets are $15-$225. Visit live.stanford.edu.

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'The No One's Rose' blooms at Stanford Live

Avant-garde opera, based on WWII survivor's poetry, takes on new dimension amid pandemic

by Janet Silver Ghent / Contributor

Uploaded: Thu, Aug 19, 2021, 9:42 am

When the world splinters after a cataclysmic event, how does a poet, an artist, a dancer or a composer move forward without plunging into hopelessness or wallowing in optimistic platitudes? Those are questions Paul Celan, a Holocaust survivor, wrestled with through his poetry and composer Matthew Aucoin raises in "The No One's Rose," a music, dance and theater piece based on the poems of Celan (1920-1970).

Celan, a Romanian-born Jewish poet, survived the Shoah, which claimed the lives of his family. In the postwar years, Celan settled in Paris, creating hundreds of poems in German that grapple with war, blood, death and rebirth. But the ensuing guilt and trauma led him to die by suicide at the age of 50. Aucoin includes three of Celan's poems in "The No One's Rose," which has its world premiere Aug. 25-29 at Stanford's Bing Concert Hall, presented by American Modern Opera Company (AMOC) in partnership with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Stanford Live.

"Psalm," one of the three Celan poems, offers the metaphor of a devastated postwar congregation as a "no one's rose," which despite everything continues to bloom. Like the poems themselves, Aucoin said his music includes both "darkness and light, and we don't want to be too simplistic — about one side or the other winning out." It's also about "joy and warning signs of the challenges that lie ahead."

The show, which was six years in the making, is the first performance before a live audience at Bing Concert Hall since March 2020. "The No One's Rose" was originally scheduled to premiere in October 2020, to commemorate the 100th birthday of Celan. Amid the pandemic, the piece evolved.

"The artists of AMOC and I wanted to make a dance and theater piece about how you rebuild after the last year," Aucoin said during a phone interview from Vermont, where performers rehearsed and bonded earlier this summer. "We built a kind of scene out of their experiences."

In "The No One's Rose," dancers, instrumentalists and singers also serve as storytellers, offering glimpses of their lives much as the pilgrims do in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," or the dancers in Broadway's "A Chorus Line." Violinist Keir GoGwilt, for example, talks about the emotional impact of performing via Zoom to hospitalized COVID patients around the world.

The performers are "characters onstage with us as well as music makers," said Zack Winokur, a trained dancer who co-founded AMOC with Aucoin in 2017 and directs the performance. Just as the separations between dancers, vocalists and instrumentalists are blurred, so are those between performers and audiences. Because of their pandemic experiences, "the people onstage are navigating the same circumstances as those who are watching," he added in a Zoom interview.

In dance as well, choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith seeks to create links with the audience. "I love to take everyday movements that are familiar to everyone and then amplify them until they become something else," she wrote in an email.

Aucoin, Winokur and Smith describe the creation of the show as a collaborative process. During weeks of rehearsals in Vermont before coming to Stanford in mid-August, participants became a community, dining together and sharing their lives. As the show opens, with performers seated casually around a dining room table, Winokur said he expects audiences will pick up on the raucous mood that spurred the creative process.

Smith agreed, emphasizing the "collaborative" nature of the piece's development. It "doesn't just come from a few minds. It comes from the collective imagination in the room."

Artists making up AMOC's "collective imagination" are soprano Julia Bullock, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, tenor Paul Appleby and bass-baritone Davóne Tines. In addition to Smith, dancers include Or Schraiber, Julia Eichten and Yiannis Logothetis. Instrumentalists include GoGwilt, cellist Coleman Itzkoff, and percussionist Jonny Allen.

Aucoin, a MacArthur Fellow, is both writer and composer. He was introduced to the work of Celan at Harvard, where he graduated summa cum laude in 2012, majoring in English. At Harvard, he studied poetry with Jorie Graham, whose poem "Deep Water Trawling" is also included in the piece.

Celan, he observes, "always struck me as a poet whose work is very close to music." For one, the poems "are very fragmentary — little islands or oases within a vast ocean of silence." For another, "I think he felt the need in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust to reinvent the German language as a mother tongue, but he felt alienated because of the taint of Nazism. In his middle and later poetry, he is looking very hard at individual words and renaming them, treating them as musical objects."

Aucoin said his decision to major in English was not so unusual, adding that two Harvard graduates in the show also majored in other fields: Violinist GoGwilt, also a poet and music historian, majored in literature, and bass-baritone Tines, a sociology major, created a music video about Breonna Taylor, who was killed by a police officer in her home in Louisville, Kentucky.

"There's a funny culture at Harvard, where a lot of the serious musicians wind up majoring in something else," said Aucoin, noting that he's "drawn to writing vocal music. It's always felt very natural to me to build on a text. A poem is like a piece of firewood that music sets aflame. Some composers regard words with suspicion." Aucoin sees poetry and music as "two languages. I try to be fluent in both." Opera is often regarded with similar suspicion. Aucoin hopes to erase some of that through his forthcoming book "The Impossible Art: Adventures in Opera."

When Aucoin began composing "The No One's Rose," his "original impulse was to juxtapose Bach with Paul Celan," contrasting the goodness of God and the universe and the "tonal certainty" in Bach with the uncertainty in Celan's poetry. But his piece, which begins with music from Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," continued to take on new directions.

As far as his own music, Aucoin said it "owes a lot more to beloved Bay Area resident John Adams than to some older composers." That said, the avant-garde AMOC will be performing with the Bay Area-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, best known for classical and baroque repertoire, using period instruments.

"I really admire what Philharmonia Baroque does by introducing new pieces," Aucoin said. "I don't see a contradiction. Anybody who writes music for a violin is working with an old instrument." The "color and texture and blends are a lot of fun to work with." Besides, he said, "I'm literally married to a baroque musician, bassoonist Clay Zeller-Townson.'

Now rehearsing while masked at Bing, the cast continues to grapple with the uncertainty and challenges of the pandemic. For Aucoin, if God forbid the performance at Stanford is put on hold, what happens next?

"In a way, my heaviest lifting is done," he said. "I can sleep peacefully at night. I feel the piece will come to life eventually."

"The No One's Rose" will premiere Wednesday and Thursday, Aug. 25 and 26, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 29, at 2:30 p.m. at Bing Concert Hall, 327 Lasuen St., Stanford. Tickets are $15-$225. Visit live.stanford.edu.

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