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“Look around. They’re all crying”: Naxos Releases Shining Brow, the acclaimed opera about Frank Lloyd Wright

December 1, 2008

In March 2009, Naxos proudly releases a stunning live recording of Daron Hagen and Paul Muldoon’s opera Shining Brow. Prior to its performance in November 2006 by an impressive cast with the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta, Mary Kunz of the Buffalo News interviewed Falletta and composer Daron Hagen.

Shining Brow, Daron Hagen's opera about a tumultuous time in the life of Frank Lloyd Wright, ends with a tragedy. The love of Wright's life has just been massacred, along with most of their household. The architect stands on stage, dazed and alone, wondering how he will go forward.

This weekend, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra will be joined by a cast of singers for a semi-staged performance of that opera. Hagen will be in the audience, and as he loses himself again in the drama, he will almost certainly remember the emotions he felt after the first production, 15 years ago.

"What I will never forget is when Paul Muldoon, the librettist, and I were standing at the back rail, and the stage director, Stephen Wadsworth, he tapped me on the shoulder and he said, "You did that.' I said, "What?' He said, "Look around. They're all crying.' "

Hagen grows quiet, reliving the moment. "I said, "Good, that's what you want.' I realized here we were in the dark telling ghost stories.

"We were partaking in a ritual that goes back to the beginning of time," he says. "It's a communion. It's what the Catholic Church understands. That what makes Mass moving. It's the distillation of opera. What opera hopes to achieve is that communion."

Hagen, who has written four major operas, has been in town most of the week helping prepare the latest production of Shining Brow.

Already, he's familiar with Buffalo from research he has done on Wright's architecture and also from Wright's ardent cult of fans, whom he hears from frequently.

JoAnn Falletta, who will be conducting the opera, stresses the beauty of its music.

"The opera is very romantic, neo-romantic," she says. "Daron Hagen went back to the kind of language that really speaks to people. It's very accessible, warm, beautiful music—lush, wonderfully written for voice."

Falletta is sure Shining Brow will speak to Buffalonians.

"It talks about Buffalo a lot," she says. "He never thought it would be coming to Buffalo, but it talks about his early life, houses he's building in Buffalo where one room flows into the next. He talks about the Darwin Martin house, which is eerie. He talks about his thorny relationship with Louis Sullivan," she adds, alluding to the great architect who built our Guaranty Building.

Hagen, 44, grew up in Wisconsin, not far from Taliesin, Wright's estate. He wrote the opera in the 1980s, coached by his composition teacher, Leonard Bernstein. (Hagen refers to him as "L.B.")

Shining Brow confronts Wright at what could be called the dramatic crossroads of his life. The opera's opening finds him beginning to break free from his mentor, Sullivan. His personal life is thrown into upheaval, too, when he meets Mamah, the woman for whom he would leave his wife.

When he wrote Shining Brow, Hagen was fascinated by this turbulent point in Wright's life. The composer, who is married, was particularly drawn by Wright's struggles to balance his creativity with his family.

"Back then, I was giving a lot of time in my own life to thinking about what role a family plays in the life of a dedicated artist," he says. "To put that many people's lives in jeopardy because of your own personal and ethical decisions, that's great personal drama."

What words does Hagen have for all of us who will be seeing his opera for the first time?

Hagen pauses, pondering. "I would encourage you to take the journey with the characters," he says.

"It's my hope—and the librettist's, Paul Muldoon's—that at the end of the opera, people wind up thinking about the personal decisions all these people made. To me, that's the power of a great human drama like this, about the intersection between life and art. We don't answer any questions, but we do pose questions."

- Mary Kunz, Buffalo News, 3 November 2008

Kunz’s review of the very performance captured live on Naxos’s forthcoming release is just one of the countless accolades that Shining Brow has gained:

They are two of Buffalo's guiding lights. Frank Lloyd Wright left us a wealth of creations, including the Darwin Martin House, pointing to the past and the future. Louis Sullivan's legacy is our magnificent, imposing terra cotta Guaranty Building.

The two architects lived and worked at a time when the world was changing so fast that, looking back, it seems a blur. Shining Brow, the opera by Daron Hagen about Wright's impressive array of midlife crises—which included a thorny professional relationship with Sullivan—captures this moment with close to perfect accuracy. Music can express what can't be said in words, or even in bricks and mortar.

Many people tend to avoid new music, fearing it is dissonant and jarring. Hagen's music is not. Except for a couple of shocking moments, it falls sweetly on the ears. The Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, especially, contributes lovely, carol-like interludes. BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta moves the work along with a steady grace.

The references to the music of Wright's time are striking. An anguished cry mirrors a moment in Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer. The opera's second half includes a whimsical collage of the teens. A kind of barbershop quartet refers to historical events, from Geronimo to the Model T. A cafe pianist and violinist [Amy Glidden, the Philharmonic's associate concertmaster, fills the role charmingly] play a waltz. The charm is shockingly offset by the musical depiction of the murder of Wright's muse, Mamah, and her children at Taliesin. Hagen makes the orchestra instruments scream, and a haunting image appears on screen of flames and the shadow of a hand.

Baritone Robert Orth makes Wright a sympathetic figure. It's a glitch of casting that Robert Frankenberry, who plays his "Lieber Meister" [dear master] Sullivan, looks so much younger. Frankenberry threatens to steal the show. His clear tenor carries easily through the hall. The light-voiced Elaine Valby gives a touching portrayal of the abandoned Catherine Wright, and Brenda Harris gives Mamah an arresting intensity. Mamah's husband, Edwin, is sung by Matthew Curran, an excellent baritone.

- Mary Kunz, Buffalo News, 5 November 2008

For more information about Shining Brow, please visit Daron Hagen’s website


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