ALIAS Shines in New Opera Collaboration

Described by music critics as a cross between Gone With the Wind and The Twilight Zone, “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” premiered November 9, at the Noah Liff Opera Center to rave reviews. Based on an Ambrose Bierce’s short story with libretto by Mac Wellman, David Lang’s mysterious chamber opera was beautifully executed by conductor Dean Williamson. Under the expert guidance of Artistic Director John Hoomes, the opera tells the story of a plantation owner in the antebellum American South, who walks across his field and disappears – in plain view of his family, his neighbors and the slaves.

“This piece raises more questions than answers,” says Hoomes, who led discussion sessions with the audience after each show, November 9, 10 and 11.

An international cast of opera singers performed in tandem with dramatic stage actors from such companies as Tennessee Repertory Theatre and Nashville Shakespeare Festival. Local singers joined the chorus of slaves. ALIAS’ talented quartet executed David Lang’s compelling, post-minimalist score, with each musician playing a key role in the mysterious tale.

“Indeed, the individual instruments often felt like characters within the story — calling out to one another and reflecting the action on stage.”
–Amy Stumpfl, The Tennessean

The lead performances featured mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera as Mrs. Williamson, soprano Rebecca Sjöwall as the Williamsons’ daughter and tenor Robert Anthony Mack as the house slave Boy Sam. Brian Russell played Mr. Williamson and a magistrate who holds an inquest about his disappearance, and Eric Pasto-Crosby portrayed Williamson’s neighbor Armour Wren, as well as Williamson’s overseer and brother Andrew. The ALIAS quartet included Zeneba Bowers and Alison Gooding on violins, Matt Walker on cello and Chris Farrell on viola.

“Their beautiful work reinforces and often spurs the action on the raised platform in Noah Liff Opera Center’s upstairs studio space.”
–Evans Donnell, ArtsNash

Audiences at each of the November performances were treated to a hybrid work of contemporary opera with the look and feel of a play. The ALIAS musicians and the cast of singers artfully worked in tandem as the threads in Lang’s tapestry of melodies.

“One of the best comes near the end of the opera, when Williamson’s wife sings an anguished a cappella aria about her husband’s disappearance. In a masterstroke of tone painting, Lang eventually weaves in a soulful melody for first violin. The instrumental music serves as a stand-in for the missing man, and it deftly turns a wrenching aria into a heartfelt duet.”
–John Pitcher, ArtsNash

The singing and acting in “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” received stellar reviews, including breath-taking performances by the ensemble cast portraying the slaves. Soprano Sonya Sardon (Virginia Creeper) and Jennifer Whitcomb-Olivia (Old Woman) led the slave chorus, which also included Brooke Leigh Davis, Charles E. Charlton, Brian K. Harvey II, Bakari King, Dave Ragland and Dionne Marie Simpson. According ArtsNash music critic John Pitcher, all gave “terrific” performances.

Pitcher also gave special credit to Artistic Director John Hoomes for the “masterful” interpretation of the play.

“He avoids the temptation of highlighting the more avant-garde elements of the opera, which would tend to make this work seem pretentious or worse, campy. His one indulgence is the horse head (not called for in the libretto), which serves to intensify the opera’s sense of mystery. Hoomes’ main focus is on the characters, who reveal their innermost emotions on a bare stage. It makes for an evening of riveting theater that takes an un-sugarcoated look at this nation’s past.”

Are more future collaborations in the works for ALIAS and John Hoomes? Read more about the director’s inspiration for “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” and possible future projects from Mr. Hoomes below.

Nashville Opera Artistic Director John Hoomes – Working with ALIAS

Q: What was it like working with the ALIAS musicians in “The Difficulty in Crossing a Field?”

It was terrific. They had requested the music early because they wanted to practice it themselves before working with us. They had a reputation for excellence and it showed, because even before our rehearsals they wanted to get a feel for the piece. They invited me to the house to hear the quartet play: including Zen, Matt, Chris and Alison.

They did some wonderful stuff with the piece. There are some places that are unusual. Sometimes they would stop playing at a section and say, “That can’t be right!” Then they’d stop and look at the music and realize yes, they were playing it correctly. They had a great sense of humor about it, and at the same time they were so incredibly professional.

Our conductor, Dean Williamson, loved working with them. When this piece was originally performed ten years ago in San Francisco, there was no conductor leading it. I can’t imagine! This type of complex piece really needs a conductor. We were fortunate because Dean conducts a lot of modern music. This turned out to be a great experience for everyone.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of this project?

It took a lot of concentration to perform this type of music for an extended period of time. In the original version, the first piece is almost 78 minutes long. Even though the musicians are not playing the entire time, you can’t let your guard down for a moment and you have to really pay attention. This goes for the chorus, the actors and the musicians. This type of modern music is very accessible, but it takes a tremendous amount of concentration.

It’s a like roller coaster ride. Once you get on a car, you have to hang on and stay focused! And that’s exactly what everyone did. The response to all of the performances was great. The audience loved it and we received great press. I’m very pleased how the whole thing worked.

Q: What was the best part of working with this unusual piece?

I loved how ALIAS was so very invested in the piece. That investment goes to their talent and to their emotions to make it the best it can be. They’re very conscientious about what they do and they champion this type of music.

In a large orchestra, musicians are sort of hidden, but in “The Difficulty in Crossing a Field,” the quartet was very exposed and seen by the audience the entire time. At one point there’s a scene where the actor angrily slams a cane on the floor. I had forgotten to tell the musicians this was going to happen. I thought Zen and Matt were going to have a heart attack! But they took it in stride.

What I love about these musicians and about chamber music is that it’s very intimate. Our project needed that kind of connection between the quartet, the singers and the actors. It’s about connection and intimacy. We’re all in this together.

David Lang came to see it opening night and was very pleased with it. We really were fortunate to work with him when we did. He won a Pulitzer about a year ago and he will be the Composer in Residence for Carnegie Hall next year.

Our conductor asked David about the score, because if you listen to the San Francisco recording from ten years ago, that performance varied quite a bit from the original score. Dean asked David if he wanted us to stay true to the original, and he did. So Dean asked ALIAS to do that and that’s exactly what they did, because they’re excellent musicians. They gave the conductor exactly what he asked them to give.