|About this Recording
8.669030 - KARCHIN, L.: Romulus [Opera] (Thurman, Ebel, Meglioranza, Wilbur, Washington Square Ensemble, Karchin)
Louis Karchin (b. 1951)
A Comic Opera in One Act
Martha - Katrina Thurman, Soprano
During his lifetime, the great French writer Alexandre Dumas was known as much for his plays as for his novels, and at one time or another, important opera composers such as Bellini and Meyerbeer considered collaborating with him. While these plans never reached fruition, there is no denying Dumas’ easy adaptability to the world of opera and we are grateful to Karchin for having the eye to set a first-rate Dumas work.
When looking for new operas to develop and present, American Opera Projects always starts with the text or libretto—what calls out for singing? Louis Karchin’s Romulus has a surplus of attractive elements about its story that are noted even before listening to the music. The libretto offers a well-constructed plot from a time-tested existing play. The English-language adaptation and story-telling is clear and direct. Plus, there is material in the libretto that provides opportunities for contrast in the sound world being created by the composer—with a man abandoning a baby-in-a-basket and later a furious politician invading a household that is dedicated to silent pursuits: reading and star gazing. It is then extremely rewarding to experience the music and discover how the composer’s score has made the most of a scenario full of surprises and delights. For example, notice how Karchin inserts beguiling passages of musical dramaturgy even when accompanying pantomime or important stage action without text. Digging in deeper, the music draws the listener to the multidimensional characters…ideal for a live theater…each one has multiple aims and goals…some on the surface and some hidden underneath…Karchin accentuates these contrasts and the resulting interplay between the characters is pure theatre…theatre of singing.
Louis Karchin’s Romulus: An Interview with the Composer
In 2007, the Guggenheim Museum’s Works & Process series, in collaboration with American Opera Projects, staged the première of Louis Karchin’s first opera, Romulus. Now, with the same cast, the first recording provides an opportunity to consider this work afresh.
Among Karchin’s compositional juvenilia are several short works entitled “operas,” but as a listener, Karchin was not an opera buff from the first. “It was only once I started graduate school at Harvard University that I really became immersed in opera,” says the composer. “It became almost an obsession. One of my teachers, Earl Kim, was constantly writing for the voice, and I’m grateful that he encouraged me to study Mozart’s operas in particular. I took matters even further and with two colleagues, Paul Salerni and Laura Johnson, soon was involved in producing an opera at Harvard: Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio.”
This choice from the outset proved oddly prescient, as there are parallels between Abduction and Romulus. Both are comedies that deal with struggles of the heart and concomitant struggles with the mores and moral strictures of their respective societies. Incidentally, both contain a prominent and memorable rôle for a bass antagonist—although Abduction’s Osmin is an unrepentant villain while Romulus’ Babenhausen exhibits a late-opera change of heart. However, while Mozart’s work remains very much a period piece, something timeless about the Alexandre Dumas play Romulus drew Karchin to consider it as ideal for operatic adaptation.
Karchin says, “Having decided that I wanted to compose an opera, I embarked on a wide search, reading many, many plays. By chance, I was in a bookstore in New York City at 47th and Broadway devoted to drama, and that’s where I came across Romulus. I’d enjoyed Dumas since I was a child—I greatly admired The Three Musketeers—and thought that this short play would make the perfect libretto.”
“It’s true that a play set in the nineteenth century, with characters such as an astronomer and a philosopher, could at first glance seem somewhat remote from most people’s modern day lives. But there was something universal about Romulus that seemed to transcend its era. The characters are people of consequence notwithstanding the light-hearted and delightfully humorous qualities of the play.”
Indeed, a tale about dubious paternity and ensuing political intrigues might seem virtually ripped from today’s headlines. But rather than unduly focusing on scandal, Dumas’ Romulus makes the most of its characters’ essential goodness. Regardless of any human frailties or shortcomings, both of the male protagonists—Wolf, a philosopher—and Celestus, an astronomer—are at heart principled and serious-minded individuals. Martha, Celestus’ sister (who secretly carries a torch for his friend Wolf) is the epitome of patience and caring. Even Babenhausen, the blustery and officious town mayor, is willing to apologize for his misapprehensions by the close of the tale.
Like many contemporary operas, for much of the duration of Romulus it is not so easy to parse the music into stand-alone arias, ensembles, and recitatives. The only character who gets a true excerptible aria is Martha. The composer adds, “Nonetheless, there are clearly demarcated musical sections; they’re self-contained and aim to capture the mood of the situation-at-hand. Romulus had a wonderful stage director, Peter Flynn, and I remember that Peter and I spent an entire afternoon going through the score section by section; he was particularly interested in learning how musical ideas were grouped. Individual numbers are perhaps most obvious in the first fifteen minutes or so. As the opera becomes more continuous, sectional borders blur but never completely fade. While studying opera, I was intrigued by how effortlessly Strauss and Wagner could attain a seamless flow, and I tried to emulate this.”
Despite favoring continuity, Karchin’s music clearly delineates the opera’s characters, creating much memorable material. Karchin notes, “The character with the most eccentric and outlandishly comic profile is Babenhausen. From his first entrance on, he makes an escalating series of sleuthing errors and missteps. His music is probably the most consistent throughout, with its march-like motifs and rhythms. But Babenhausen’s music does change. Towards the end, when he’s defeated and all his theories have been disproved, the march slows to a stand-still. I tried to recreate what was going through his mind: all of a sudden he’s not sure of anything. His world has been turned upside down and he is speechless.”
“The most prominent characters in the opera, of course, are Celestus and Wolf, and their rôles require the most stamina. Of the two, Celestus is the more assertive, and I was aware of always trying to differentiate his music from Wolf’s, which had to be of a more lyrical and reflective demeanor; he’s shyer, dreamier, and oftentimes absentminded. Conrad, the young man constantly running from the mayor, appears onstage twice and gets his own musical accompaniment: furtive, scampering, and sneaky.”
Although by no means retrospective or neoromantic in its harmonic idiom, Romulus has a pitch language that should appeal to a wide range of listeners. Karchin relates, “I was conscious with Romulus more than any other work of mine, of trying to create a harmonic language that would be fitting and unique. Furthermore, it had to be a malleable language. One of the wonderful things about opera is that so many moods may be encapsulated in a single work. In Romulus, there are tonal lullabies; conversely there are the pompous, acerbic, atonal diatribes of Babenhausen. Towards the end of the opera, when Wolf finally proposes to Martha, there was an opportunity to create ‘love music.’ There is even an aleatoric passage: when Wolf and Celestus finally have a moment of freedom to luxuriate in their studies, I gave the instrumentalists some freedom to create their own rhythms, although playing some carefully chosen notes. There are also some effects—percussion and inside-the-piano work, notably in music depicting the baby’s cries.”
A host of motifs are interwoven in the score. A large part of the structure of Romulus is based on the reappearance of ideas associated with a character or element of plot. Sometimes characters need not be present for their music to be referenced. At one point, Celestus and Wolf are discussing Babenhausen while the latter is offstage. One can hear a shadowy echo of the mayor’s music in the orchestra; it appears in the background but is not quite as gruff-sounding as Babenhausen in the flesh!
The lullaby theme proves to be a persistent leitmotif, appearing in several incarnations throughout the score. A particularly captivating version occurs about halfway through the opera, when Celestus, Wolf, and Martha are all crowded round the baby’s crib.
All of this is accompanied by an ensemble that, despite being a chamber orchestra, sounds deceptively large. Indeed, Karchin has done an elegant job providing maximal coloristic variety and, where required, power in the scoring. The composer conducted the original performances as well as the recording sessions. Karchin reflects, “Opera has its special challenges, but conducting Romulus seemed very natural. We had singers and instrumentalists who were superb musicians, and in this situation, conducting becomes the ‘icing on the cake.’ I’m glad to see more composers conducting their own operas: John Adams, Bright Sheng, Thomas Adès, and Tan Dun, to name a few.”
Despite its small cast and single act, Romulus looms similarly large in conception. It appears that Karchin has indeed caught the ‘opera bug.’ As of this writing, he is at work on a full length opera. In the meantime, there’s much memorable music to savor in Romulus: here on this recording and, one hopes, in many future productions.
Christian Carey is a composer, performer, and music theorist. He has taught at Westminster Choir College and the Manhattan School of Music, and is a Contributing Editor at the contemporary classical website Sequenza 21 (www.sequenza21.com/carey)
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