Being and Opera-ness: Chicago Opera Vanguard enters season with “No Exit”

Thu Oct 15, 2009 at 1:25 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Jean-Paul Sartre

For most opera companies their first season, is, well, their first season.

But for Chicago Opera Vanguard, the street-theater ensemble’s 2008-09 debut was called “Season 0.”  That’s unduly modest, considering the impact Eric Reda’s scrappy young company quickly made on Chicago’s cultural scene, including presenting the Midwest premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek last spring.

The company is serving up an equally envelope-pushing lineup for “Season 1,” which opens Friday night with another local premiere, Andy Vores’ No Exit.

As celebrated and concise as Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential drama is, there are still difficulties refitting it as an opera. “It’s a very wordy play,” said the composer, born in Wales and a long-time Massachusetts resident. “I had to reduce it by three-fifths.”

Yet even with the verbosity, the play’s taut construction made it a challenge to edit without losing essential information. Director George Cederquist  says Vores was exceptionally skillful in his adaptation.

“Andy’s cutting does a great job of contrasting the conflict between the three characters in the room and the conflict between each  character and their vision of life back on Earth after their death,” said Cederquist. “And musically, this distinction is also beautifully crafted, with the ‘lockdowns’ and recitatives furthering the plot, and the arias highlighting the characters’ dying relationships to those they’ve left behind.”

Andy Vores
Andy Vores

Vores’ style is essentially tonal with a 21st-century astringent edge, reflected in his Quartet No. 3 and piano trio, Urban Affair, available on CD (Vera).

“In my music, I’ve been very eclectic,” says Vores. “I love Britten and Stravinsky but I also love Xenakis, Stockhausen and Berio. I probably really lean more toward tonal 20th-century composers but not at the expense of more prickly things.”

His Sartre opera is a synthesis of those opposing styles, blended with a single  sustained dramatic arc.  Yet Vores’ score for No Exit is less harmonically rich, with a more straitened palette than most of his music, palpable in the lean scoring for viola, cello, soprano sax, and untuned percussion. “The play is so relentless, I wanted the music to feel a little claustrophobic and reflect that,” says the composer.  “It’s rooted in tonality but it’s not lodged there.”

Vores’ No Exit had its premiere in 2008 at Guerrila Opera, a group affiliated with Boston Conservatory.  And, while Vanguard’s production will be more elaborate than the black-box Boston debut, Cederquist said he didn’t want to “overstage” the piece.

“This is a danger with any opera, with too much happening onstage,” said Cederquist. “Directors often forget that the music can tell the story most clearly, beyond any stage picture or design element. All theatre is, at its core, about relationships, and Sartre’s play is no exception.”

For his part, Vores is intrigued by the different approach he saw when in Chicago earlier this month for rehearsals. “It’s great to have a second production and have the opera put on by someone other than the people I wrote it for.

“I’m very excited to see what happens. I know it’s in excellent hands.”

Chicago Opera Vanguard presents the Midwest premiere of Andy Vores’ No Exit 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at The Center on Halsted’s Hoover-Leppen Theatre, 3656 N. Halsted. There will also be an encore performance 8 p.m. Oct. 30 at Northwestern University’s Lutkin Hall in Evanston.; 773-747-7364.

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One Response to “Being and Opera-ness: Chicago Opera Vanguard enters season with “No Exit””

  1. Posted Oct 17, 2009 at 9:42 am by Dan the Music Master

    Thanks for the insight into Vores. How wonderful that his opera is getting another performance.

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