The ebb and flow of the tide is a central image in “The Singing Bridge,” an original opera that has been commissioned by Maine producers and will have a world premiere July 8 at the Stonington Opera House. Additional performances will take place July 9 and 10 at the opera house, and July 16 at the University of Maine at Machias. Set in Hancock, the work is about a Down East family and community during the 1940s as well as the 1960s. In addition to the tidal references, the opera is about sexual abuse and healing.
But it was the musical and poetic references to the tide that first drew me to the work last fall when Opera House Arts, the producing arm of the opera house, presented about a third of “The Singing Bridge” in a workshop performance. A singer began the opera with a stuttering sound – “T-t-t-t-t-t-tide” – in a rolling, rhythmic imitation of water. It was lulling and haunting and unforgettable. I’ve thought of it more than once in the last 10 months, especially when I’ve been close to the ocean.
Since then, the creative team at the heart of the opera – poet Beatrix Gates, composer Anna Dembska and theatrical director Richard Edelman – have been reworking and rehearsing the material, along with music director Peter Szep, with eight top-notch singers from Boston
and New York City for the world premiere in Stonington.
It struck me the other night while listening to and watching a rehearsal at the opera house that the creative and producing teams have worked “tidally” with this piece. They have washed over it and stepped back from it, all the while shaping it slowly and sharply into a piece they are ready to present to the public. Is it a finished work? Is it what they imagined? As a Maine audience, will we recognize the characters and music and setting? Why did they choose operatic form and not the more popular musical theater style? And how does this work relate to our lives in Maine?
These are some of the questions I’ll be asking members of that team – Dembska, Edelman, OHA producer Linda Nelson and cast members – during community discussions about “The Singing Bridge, its inception and journey to stage, 7 p.m. Monday, June 27, at the Stonington Opera House and 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 28, at the Bangor Public Library. Both events are free and open to the public, which means if you have questions about this opera or about the creative process of artists, plan to be in the audience.
That audience-artist exchange is an important aspect of both this Maine-grown work – the composer and writer both have ties to Maine – and of the opera house. Like the tide, the Stonington Opera House executive and artistic team has taken up a sweeping public mission to engage its local and outlying communities in the arts and to create a space where artists can test their ideas before live audiences.
“This is new music and a new story created directly from the sounds and voices of the places and communities around us,” said Judith Jerome, OHA artistic director for the project. “Community members have participated in its creation throughout the four years of its development. We are very proud to be able to create new performances specific to our local culture, and grateful to all those who support this process.”
Still, you might ask (and I hope you will at one of the discussion sessions next week): Why should we care?
I plan to ask that question, too, but, in preparation, I called a producer friend who has had hit shows in New York City and elsewhere. He was pleased to learn that a small venue was taking such big risks. (The budget for the opera – $50,000 – is half the opera house’s programming budget for the year.) He quickly added that launching a new work for the stage in a far-flung area is part of a tradition with theater. Not so long ago in theater history, musicals and plays were first tested and tweaked in New Haven, Boston or Philadelphia before opening on Broadway. These days, it’s just as likely that they originate in back-alley theaters, regional performing arts centers and small opera houses on the coast of Maine.
“To have the ability to work in a small theater like that is good for everybody,” my friend said. “That classic out-of-town circuit doesn’t really exist anymore. A show can start nearly anywhere that will take the chance. And it gives a wonderful freedom to experiment because you’re below the radar.”
I told him I had been wondering if the premiere would mark a stopping point or a starting point for the opera. Earlier this week, Anna Dembska, the composer, said she would be adjusting the music right up until the last minute. And Bea Gates, the librettist and conceiver of the story, said she was still working on characters. For them, “The Singing Bridge” has been a seed growing since 12 years ago when they presented a mini-version of the opera in New York City. Or longer back if you consider the gestational decades during which the two women have observed their communities, listened to the Downeast accents, the cars going over the bridge and, yes, the tide.
Will “The Singing Bridge” be a completed work on July 8, when the lights go down and the music and lyrics rise from the stage like the span of the bridge once rose above the mouth of Taunton Bay?
Another question to ask.
My friend in New York gave this advice: “Ask the audience to enjoy being part of the process. Rather than be a recipient of the end product, they’re helping the team take a big step toward a polished goal. The most important thing for the audience is that this isn’t something packaged from somewhere else. Your theater is helping to create new work, and that’s terribly important.”
BDN writer Alicia Anstead will facilitate community discussions with the creative team of “The Singing Bridge,” a new work commissioned by Opera House Arts, 7 p.m. Monday, June 27, at the Stonington Opera House, and 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 28, at Bangor Public Library. The world premiere of the opera will take place 7 p.m. Friday, July 8, with additional performances 7 p.m. July 9 and 10 at the Stonington Opera House. A fourth performance will take place 7 p.m. Saturday, July 16, at the University of Maine at Machias. For reservations, call 367-2788.