Maternity for soprano and chamber orchestra
Maternity is based on David Eagleman’s short story “The Founding Mothers,” which was published in Slate on Mother’s Day in 2010. David’s story traces a maternal line back through history, sketching the lives of 20 mothers spaced further and further apart in time. Reading David’s story helps hit home what a miracle it is than any of us are alive, and that we owe our existence not only to the family trees we can find on Ancestry.com, but also to the ancient creatures whose mating instincts and will to survive kept their lineages going.
David reads the complete story on this album; to adapt it for the libretto, we preserved the story of each mother but pared down the text considerably. The compositional challenge was suggesting millions of years of history in the space of 17 minutes: I aimed to do so with well-delineated contrasts that nevertheless share the same “musical DNA.” The setting begins with a fragment of a lullaby being sung to a child; as the piece progresses, that lullaby gets more and more distorted as the evolutionary chain rewinds to early humans, primates, aquatic creatures—and eventually to a single cell. In performance, surtitles indicate each mother, using David’s novel notation: great204grandmother, great241,920grandmother, etc. I decided not to have those sung because the superscripts eventually run to nine digits as the story works its way back to the dawn of sexual reproduction. Thus, it helps to hear David’s reading before listening to the music.
Maternity was commissioned by the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra with the support of a grant from the Houston Arts Alliance. It is dedicated to my wife Karol Bennett (whom you hear on this recording), David’s wife Sarah Eagleman, and Alecia Lawyer, ROCO’s founder.
Ulysses, Home a chamber opera in five scenes
Ulysses, Home retells the story of Ulysses’ return to his wife Penelope as a modern soldier with post-traumatic disorder coming home to his wife. It is scored for soprano, baritone, and string quartet. Its five continuous scenes run about 45 minutes.
In writing the libretto, playwright Neena Beber drew on her experiences directing a writing workshop for veterans and their spouses. She writes:
“When I began to write about a modern-day soldier’s homecoming, I found myself adrift in a ‘wine-dark sea,’ a turn of phrase that floated back to me from Homer’s The Odyssey. I recalled Ulysses’ return after years spent wandering: The Trojan War over, the long journey home coming to a close, husband and wife are finally, joyously reunited. Etched in my mind were Penelope’s endless patience at the spinning wheel and Odysseus’s crafty disguise as a beggar—always a stunning reveal when Odysseus shows his true self to his wife and son. From my work with returning soldiers and their loved ones, I have since heard many tales of reversals and revelations equally stunning, though with a painful peeling back at less dramatic speed: men and women who might look much the same on the outside, but who began to reveal to their loved ones and to themselves how much had been changed by their experiences in a slow-burning war. Even those with no external injuries to show were equally, deeply, wounded.
“Guns have a recoil after the release of explosives; for people, too, it seems an action of violence can never escape without return. The brave and honorable warriors who opened up to me spoke again and again of the cost their tours of duty had taken on their inner selves. The caregivers had equally to face, with the same courage, the daily battles at home. My hope is that as the musical score carries these words to you, we will all feel connected to the wounds sustained on foreign soil, but also feel the light of transformation that promises an end to our eternal wars.”
The opera opens with an instrumental prologue, meant to depict the ferocity of battle. That music reappears throughout the first scene as Ulysses and Penelope recount the story of their courtship and the couple’s time apart during Ulysses’ multiple tours of duty. In Scene 2, as the couple is reunited, the battle music becomes submerged—but it is never gone entirely. During the course of the next three scenes, the sounds and gestures of the instrumental overture gradually rise to the surface, until finally breaking out into the open at the end of Scene 4. The goal is to illustrate that Ulysses is not able to leave the battlefield behind.
A turning point in the story occurs at the end of Scene 3, as Ulysses suddenly believes their home is under attack. Seeking to reassure him, Penelope tries to identify the trigger—the wind, traffic, appliances, their son bouncing a ball—but Ulysses rules each explanation out until all that’s left is the air. Penelope says “I didn’t know the air made a sound,” to which Ulysses replies “Then you haven’t been where I’ve been.”
The instrumental outburst at the end of Scene 4 culminates in a gunshot, as Ulysses turns his weapon on himself. Holding the dying soldier in her arms, Penelope gives Ulysses back to mythology and the “wine-dark sea.”
Ulysses, Home was commissioned by the Sarofim Foundation and premiered by Musiqa. It is dedicated to Mimi Kilgore.
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