Opera in Conversation: St. John the Baptist Takeaways

Mar 4, 2020

Open your mind to opera this spring! ONE Festival 2020 runs March 20 – April 5. Learn more at onefestivalomaha.org

Tuesday, March 3 was the first Opera in Conversation in advance of ONE Festival 2020. We discussed the intricacies of Stradella’s St. John the Baptist with its conductor, the GRAMMY Award-winning early music specialist Stephen Stubbs, in conversation with Opera Omaha Producing Director Kurt Howard. This provocative and contemporary new production from acclaimed director Christopher Alden is being performed in an exciting warehouse space on North 11th Street in Omaha for 5 performances, March 25 – April 5. If you were not able to attend the conversation on Tuesday, read ahead to find out what you missed.

Stradella considered St. John the Baptist to be his best work. It was actually written as an oratorio, or a work for orchestra and voices that tells a religious story, albeit one of operatic proportions. Performances of the work are rare, and a fully-staged production as is being presented in Omaha is a unique opportunity.

Maestro Stubbs began the conversation by considering the historical place of Stradella as composer, and his role in the development of opera as a viable distinct musical form. The conventional wisdom for much of the second half of the twentieth century was that opera really came into its own with Mozart in the late 18th century and peaked with the great bel canto and romantic works of the 19th. However, the last few decades have seen a renewed interest in what happened in opera on either side of this ‘Golden Age’; namely Baroque opera, and new works. The names that have risen to the fore as part of the rise of Baroque opera include Monteverdi and Handel. Monteverdi worked in the late 16th century, and Handel in the early 18th. Operas such as Monteverdi’s Orpheo and Handel’s Agrippina and Semele (both of which Maestro Stubbs has directed at Opera Omaha) have entered the rotation of opera companies around the world. There is a gap in this timeline, however; who was writing opera in the 17th century? Stubbs argues that this period was actually very active for opera but remains largely neglected. Prominent opera composers from this period include Stradella, Steffani, and Sartorio, just to name Italians with ‘S’ names!

The mid-17th century was especially important for opera, as it was the period during which the form moved from being something performed in the courts of the aristocracy to something that the general public could pay to see. The first public opera is believed to have been staged as part of the Carnival of Venice in 1638. It was very well received, so two were performed in 1639, five in 1640, and the popularity of opera among the public only grew exponentially from there. Musicians were only paid based on the number of seats that were filled, so bands generally contained a dozen musicians at most. Venues remained small so that the bands could be heard. The bands also usually performed when the singers were not singing, rather than providing accompaniment. It is in the development of orchestral writing that Stradella was particularly innovative.

Stradella was the pioneer of the concerto grosso form. In this form, a core group of musicians called the continuo performs melodic lines while a larger ensemble provides accompaniment. This form contrasts the works of Monteverdi, for example, in which there is just the small continuo, comprised mostly of chordal instruments like the harpsichord and lute, which follows a ‘ground bass’ or chord progression. In the case of this production of St. John the Baptist, which uses Stradella’s concerto grosso form, the continuo is comprised of musicians from Maestro Stubbs’ own Seattle-based early music collective Pacific MusicWorks while the larger ensemble is formed by musicians from Omaha Symphony.

Stubbs then discussed the specific rehearsal process for this production, with particular focus on its collaborative nature. Stubbs is not a conductor in this production as much as he is musical director. In fact, he rarely conducts at all. Instead, as a member of the continuo group, he leads the proceedings from behind his lute. The scores of baroque music are often much less prescriptive than classical or romantic scores, hence much of the interpretation is being worked out during rehearsal. While Stradella was more precise in his markings than many other baroque composers, he still leaves many decisions to be made by performer. As a result, a production of St. John the Baptist is inherently more malleable than a production of a romantic opera might be. In the way it is akin to newly-commissioned opera, in which the rehearsal process is as much a part of the creation of the final product as the composition process.

At this point the conversation moved to some of the specifically musical aspects of St. John the Baptist. Stubbs noted that in this opera high notes and low notes are specifically employed to represent certain ideas or character motivations. High notes generally represent ambition or power – for example, the idealistic San Giovanni is performed by high-voiced Randall Scotting. The female characters Salome and Herodiade explore their low registers when scheming against Herod, demonstrating low notes generally represent the characters’ worst impulses and traits.

The harmonic palette of much of this opera and of baroque music in general is quite narrow. Many instruments only worked in a few standard key centers. The chordal structures used were also fairly simple in comparison to those used in later centuries. The result is that when Stradella breaks outside of that rigid harmonic mold, it is especially powerful and disorienting to the audience.

We wrapped up the evening by discussing the idiosyncrasies of the particular space in which this production is being staged, the MIDCO Glass Building in Omaha’s New North Makerhood District. Due to the space being much smaller than the Orpheum Theater, the cast and musicians are able to explore both ends of their dynamic range. Delicate sounds and low volumes which would just be lost in a larger hall are fair game for performers in this space. The space is also unique in its setup – its 160-foot width is not broken up by any columns, allowing for innovative staging and production decisions. The warehouse has also been renovated completely for this production. Other aspects of the space are still unknown – the acoustic properties have not yet been tested with the cast and orchestra, so in the spirit of the ONE Festival, both the production and the performance space will be in flux until opening night!

St. John the Baptist is not the only event Maestro Stubbs is involved in as part of ONE Festival 2020. He and his ensemble of musicians from Pacific MusicWorks will perform alongside members of New York’s International Contemporary Ensemble in the Ensembles in Residence series. Cover Motets is an innovative musical experience being staged in Witherspoon Hall at Joslyn Art Museum. Conceptually inspired by the echoey, cathedral-like acoustics of Witherspoon Hall, members of the two ensembles will perform musical echoes of the baroque musical form of the motet through variation, adaptation, and covers. The audience will be seated in the balcony, while performers will be on the stage, in the main house, and among the audience, creating an immersive, intimate, and unique experience in which the music of the 17th century takes on a new, architectural dimension.

We hope you’ll join us for St. John the Baptist, Cover Motets, and everything else happening as part of the ONE Festival 2020. Next week’s Opera in Conversation will look at MTHR/WMN with its creator and designer Mattie Ullrich and Executive Director of The Union for Contemporary Art, Brigitte McQueen Shew. We’ll see you there!

Jack Hardwick
Opera Omaha Weitz Fellow

Get your tickets for St. John the Baptist: onefestivalomaha.org/performances-events/productions/st-john-the-baptist
Get your tickets for Cover Motets: onefestivalomaha.org/performances-events/productions/ensembles-in-residence
Register for Opera in Conversation: MTHR/WMN on March 10: oic-mthrwmn.eventbrite.com
Register for Opera in Conversation: Gender in the Canon on March 17: oic-gender-in-the-canon.eventbrite.com

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