About this Recording
8.559853 - PICKER, T.: Opera Without Words / The Encantadas (Picker, Nashville Symphony, Guerrero)

Tobias Picker (b. 1954)
Opera Without Words / Words Without Opera


Tobias Picker has been commissioned to write operas for the Santa Fe Opera (Emmeline), LA Opera (Fantastic Mr. Fox), Dallas Opera (Thérèse Raquin), San Francisco Opera (Dolores Claiborne), Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (Awakenings) and Metropolitan Opera (An American Tragedy). He has also composed numerous works in other genres, including three symphonies, concertos for violin, viola, cello and oboe, four piano concertos and chamber music. His orchestral works have been commissioned and performed by the BBC Proms, Chicago Symphony, The Cleveland Orchestra, Helsinki Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris, Munich Philharmonic, National Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, ORF Vienna Radio Symphony, and Tonhalle Orchester Zürich, among others. His many honors include the 2020 GRAMMY Award for Best Opera Recording (Fantastic Mr. Fox). Picker is a lifetime member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and is artistic director of the Tulsa Opera, a post he has held since 2016. His works are published exclusively by Schott Music. He is married to Aryeh Lev Stollman, novelist, neuroradiologist, and librettist for his forthcoming operas Awakenings and The Danish Girl.

With its intersection of theatrical and symphonic dimensions, The Encantadas, from 1983, anticipates the two directions in which Picker’s artistic passions have evolved ever since. It was commissioned as part of a consortium project led by Peter Kermani, past president of the Albany Symphony, to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the Albany Academy. Since Herman Melville had briefly attended the school as a boy, Kermani suggested selecting a text by that legendary writer. Picker initially considered a treatment of Moby-Dick but, on the advice of friend and Melville expert Renaud Charles Bruce, he arrived at the idea of using selections from The Encantadas.

Published in Putnam’s Magazine in 1854, three years after Moby-Dick, The Encantadas provided Picker with exactly what he was seeking: “something that had a narrative arc but that also existed in the border zone between poetry and prose,” he explains. The Encantadas, or “Enchanted Isles,” mines Melville’s experiences encountering the Galápagos Islands while he was at sea on the whaling ship Acushnet. His trip occurred less than a decade after Charles Darwin’s history-making voyage to the volcanic islands west of Ecuador, and he stored away a host of powerful images from a landscape he perceived as “Plutonian.”

The Encantadas, which draws its title from one of the older names for the islands, unfolds as ten heavily symbolic prose sketches, each revolving around striking features of the land and seascape. Picker decided to draw on the now rarely used melodrama genre, in which a text is recited dramatically alongside a score that functions like the incidental music for a play. Unlike in a melodrama as generally conceived today, a plot is barely hinted at, and the entire emphasis is on the character of the islands. The six-movement work is presented as the recollections of an old man thinking back on his youthful adventures.

Picker became intrigued by Melville’s obsessive use of alliteration in The Encantadas, reflected in his titles for the six movements, all beginning with the letter “D.” Overall, the work flows in the manner of a dream, from the opening frame of the narrator looking back in memory to the conclusion at the break of day. The first movement (Dream) begins on octave Ds, pulsing on low strings, harp and piano. This ominous tread returns at the end of the first movement, followed by a dreamy violin solo.

Picker does not prescribe any rhythmic patterns to set the words, but the score indicates specifically where the moments of narration are to occur. Sometimes the musical elements are specifically linked to certain words, while in other passages the narrator speaks unaccompanied. The musical language is highly descriptive on its own terms, at times drawing out the implications of a particular image. Picker’s focus in both the text excerpts and the music is on the ambiguous, dualistic aspect of the natural phenomena Melville describes. The cruel, “evilly enchanted” demeanor of these islands comes menacingly into the foreground, but so does their ethereal and spectacular beauty.

Each movement inhabits a sound world of its own, which is enhanced by a spotlight on specific timbres. The apocalyptic landscape of Desolation is dry and hissing, while the harsh sonorities of Delusion vividly underscore Melville’s dark vision of a “fallen” world. Diversity encompasses a wide spectrum of moods, touching on the famous tortoises and various birds: downright comical in the waltz-parody given the penguin, and lonely and mysterious in a long piano solo that etches the pensive pelicans. Birds similarly inhabit the fifth movement (Din), which arrives at a violent climax suggesting the “dissonant din” of the wild birds’ cries. Here, too, the narration is set completely apart from the music. Dawn concludes The Encantadas with slow, meditative music. Picker’s muted strings and languid winds convey the fantasy dissolving, as “nature seemed … half suspended in jaded expectation of the sun.”

For Opera Without Words, co-commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra and the Nashville Symphony, Picker developed a radically new form: a purely instrumental work that conveys a secret opera. The score exploits his orchestral virtuosity and command of large-scale structure with the savvy of one of contemporary music’s most active opera composers. “There’s a gap between these disparate worlds of the symphony orchestra culture and the opera culture,” Picker explains. “I’ve inhabited these two worlds for a long time and have seen how they tend to be unaware of each other. So by returning to one of those worlds, I wanted to bridge that gap for myself and, hopefully, for others.”

The title Opera Without Words is not merely a metaphor. The work was conceived as an actual opera, from which voices and text have been withdrawn; some of the stage directions are left in as instructions to the musicians. “Music in opera has to push the drama forward and to be the drama,” Picker explains, “not an accompaniment to words. It must have the power to communicate the deeper emotional life of the characters; the words are just an ornament to hear the beauty of the human voice. The music should be telling the story.” In writing this piece, the composer continues:

In writing this piece, the composer continues:

“I thought about composers of the past. Mendelssohn wrote Songs Without Words without any texts in his mind whatever. There are several purely orchestral recordings of Puccini operas without words. Lorin Maazel created a version of Wagner’s Ring called The ‘Ring’ Without Words. One of my principal teachers, Milton Babbitt, once wrote a short piece called Phonemena for soprano in which the singer has no words, just phonemes. He was trying to merge his own complex compositional technique with the jazz form known as scat singing. I remembered how another of my principal teachers, Elliott Carter, had introduced me to his notion of instrumentalists as ‘characters’ or ‘players in a drama.’

“And so I approached my first purely orchestral work in 22 years as I would an opera. I hired a librettist, Irene Dische. We had long discussions about the characters, the role of the chorus (in this case, a double chorus), and issues of text setting and stage directions, characterization and motivation. I then set her words not to voices but to musical instruments, unfettered by considerations of vocal range and technique. When I finished the score, I removed them all. I kept a separate copy so that Opera Without Words could (with some adjustments for the human voice) theoretically be performed as an opera with words, the original words and staging restored.

“Having done away with the words and stage directions, I decided to leave in traces and artifacts of the deleted libretto. Terminology of an unusual nature (for instrumental musicians) remains. I included some terms only an opera singer is accustomed to seeing. A passage may be marked ‘pompous,’ ‘doting,’ ‘defensively,’ ‘upbraiding,’ ‘terrified,’ ‘self-righteously,’ even ‘aside to the audience,’ and so on.

Opera Without Words is dedicated to the blessed memory of my mother, the artist Henriette Simon Picker (1917–2016).”

Thomas May

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