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(Words by Kenneth Koch) is the first in a series of short operas in collaboration with the poet Kenneth Koch, based on his book, One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays.
The Composing of the Heliotrope Bouquet
Scene One: Joplin’s Dream
The Composing of the Heliotrope Bouquet
Words by Eric Overmyer
Music by Roger Tréfousse
The Composing of the Heliotrope Bouquet is a poetic imagining of a legendary meeting between the ragtime composers Louis Chauvin and Scott Joplin.
Chauvin was born in St. Louis, Missouri on March 13, 1882. He played and composed ragtime piano in St Louis and was one of the great draws at the legendary Rosebud Café, located in the heart of St. Louis’s “Chestnut Valley,” an early 20th century red-light district. (Black businessman and musician Tom Turpin opened the Rosebud, and for six years it was “the spot” for classic ragtime.) All the musicians who heard Chauvin play considered him one of ragtime’s greatest composers and pianists. But he also spent a good deal of his time in the brothels, bars and opium dens in the district, and as he never wrote down his music, almost no evidence of it survives.
Joplin, “the ragtime king”, wrote 44 original ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet, and two operas. Joplin moved to St Louis in 1900 and composed some of his most beautiful rags there. He also performed at the Rosebud Café, where he met and befriended Chauvin. And like Chauvin, he also spent time in the district’s many whorehouses and opium dens.
In 1907 Chauvin moved to Chicago. By then, the syphilis that he had contracted in St Louis was effecting his mental and physical health, and he died in 1908 at age 27. Joplin visited him in the last year of his life and they spent an evening together. They improvised together, playing music until dawn. Back in St Louis, Joplin transcribed and published Heliotrope Bouquet, based on music they created that night in Chicago. The first two sections are by Chauvin and the last two are by Joplin, and Heliotrope Bouquet is our only written evidence of Chauvin’s music.
Ten years later, Joplin died of syphilis as well, furiously determined, in spite of his illness, to complete his masterwork, the opera Treemonisha.
The Composing of the Heliotrope Bouquet is a dream-like telling of the story of that fateful, magical evening that Chauvin and Joplin spent together; of these two brilliant musicians, both of whom had so much more to give to the world, talking and playing until dawn and creating a unique and gorgeous work of art.
In the early 20th century, the French Quarter in New Orleans was another crucible for ragtime’s beginnings, a place where, in the words of Joan Didion, “the air is heavy with sex and death, not violent death but death by decay, overripeness, rotting, death by drowning, suffocation, fever of unknown etiology.” We have taken poetic license and set the meeting there rather than in Chicago, in “The House of Blue Light”, an imagined New Orleans sporting house in the French Quarter: a rambling, somewhat decrepit but hauntingly beautiful building. In the opera, Chauvin (as was common for sporting house pianists of the era) lives at The House of Blue Light, where he is engaged to play for the customers as they sit in the parlor, drinking and socializing with the girls.
The opera opens as dawn breaks over The House of Blue Light. The women prepare to sleep as a drunken customer staggers home. Joplin, who has spent the night there, awakens and sings an aria about his troubling dream.
Joy: Sally Stevens
Felicity: Gurcell Henry
Spice: Geanie Faulkner
Hannah: Kathryn Monahan
Spanish Mary: Lisa Monheit
Trick John: Charles Walker
Scott Joplin: Willie Drake
June Marano-Murray, piano
Conducted by Leigh Gibbs-Gore
Found Objects – Scene 3 and Scene 4 beginning
Found Objects – Scene 4 conclusion
Opera in One Act
Words and Music by Roger Tréfousse
Found Objects is written in a “found” language, and depicts a summer trip by car from New York to Maine. The text is made up of “objects” such as roadside signs, newspaper headlines, overheard scraps of conversation and distorted fragments of popular songs, and is taken directly from the outer landscape, sometimes literally, sometimes filtered through the unconscious.
Music provides the subtext and the opera depicts an inner journey. The traveler experiences the supercharged New York City summer, the interstate at night, a surrealistic interlude at a Holiday Inn and the incomparable beauty of the Maine seacoast. A whole range of emotions is triggered by the landscape and, at the same time, projected onto it.
The six singers represent the traveler’s inner voices. They also become other characters met along the journey and fantasy figures from hidden places in the traveller’s mind—or even eighteen- wheeler trucks barreling down the highway. Serious, sharply focused sections alternate with comic interludes. The opera builds to a climax as the traveller tries to connect, both to another person and to a sense of place. The final scene takes place on the beach at summer’s end, where the traveler accepts that “the greatest love is that which submits to the arbitration of time” (Lawrence Durrell) if he will “only listen,” but that he “cannot together yet.”
Synopsis of Scenes
Scene One: New York to Maine
The trip begins. Thoughts of New York—the subway, bad movie plots, pizza parlors—still run around in the traveler’s head. He realizes that he has left all that behind him, for now.
Scene Two: Maine
The traveler arrives in Maine for the first time. It is morning when he arrives and it takes him some time to adjust to this very different atmosphere. It grows dark. Overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape, he sings a hymn to the night as a full moon rises over the ocean.
Scene Three: Maine to New York
Driving along the interstate, the traveler is both fascinated and repulsed by the phantasmagoric bombardment of images coming at him from all directions. The mood grows calm as a beautiful sunset colors the outskirts of the city.
Scene Four: New York
Back in New York, the traveler longs for a way to reconcile conflicting desires, as a blazingly hot summer day turns into cool twilight. The scene ends on an absurd and cheerful note.
Scene Five: Holiday Inn
On the way back to Maine. A surreal stop at a motel along the way.
Scene Six: Maine
Early in the morning. Tis time, the traveler is immediately able to shed his city baggage. He stands on the beach as the day comes to a close. Sunlight glitters on the ocean. There is a feeling of peace and resolution. Then his thoughts turn to a more human longing for fulfillment. A bittersweet mood, heightened by the knowledge that summer is at an end. The traveler realizes that he “cannot together yet.” But he has “had a look see, “and all this will be with him as he continues along his road.
Found Objects was commissioned and premiered by the Mannes Opera Ensemble, with the following cast.
Soprano 1: Cassandra Hoffman
Soprano 2: Susan Taplinger
Mezzo-Soprano: Natalie Arduino
Tenor 1: Rodrick Dixon
Tenor 2: Jonathan Kline
Baritone: Constantinos Yiannoudes
The Mannes Orchestra conducted by Paul Echols
Fantasy on the Name Ben Weber
Fantasy on the Name Ben Weber was written in memory of the composer Ben Weber, and first performed on a retrospective concert of Weber’s music at Miller Theater, Columbia University. Six composers (Milton, Babbitt, Ned Rorem, Lou Harrison, Michael Colgrass, Francis Thorne, and Roger Tréfousse) wrote pieces in memory of Weber, using the same orchestration as Weber used for his Prelude and Nocturne for Frank O”Hara
Tara Helen O’Connor, flute
Margaret Kampmeier, celesta
Dorothy Lawson, cello
Balanced Boulders – Excerpt 1
Balanced Boulders – Excerpt 2
Balanced Boulders – Excerpt 3
for narrator, flute, tuba and percussion
Words by Spencer Holst
Music by Roger Tréfousse
This music was commissioned in honor of the publication of Balanced Boulders, a collection of very short prose poems by legendary downtown New York writer Spencer Holst. Passages from the book alternate with sections of music; the piece can also be performed without narration.
Performers on this recording, from the first performance at the Westbeth Theater, are narrators Jennifer Farbar and Spencer Holst, and Singletree (Helen Campo, flute; Marcus Rojas, tuba and Pablo Rieti, percussion).
Jackson Pollock Suite
Man, Bull, Bird
Portrait and a Dream
The Jackson Pollock Suite is drawn from music for Amanda Pope’s PBS documentary Jackson Pollock: Portrait. Each piece is related to a specific painting by Pollock.
Trouble at the Laundromat, from the film Elliot Fauman, PhD
Songs from Raft of the Medusa
Words by Joe Pintauro
It’s Not The Same World
Award-winning playwright Joe Pintauro’s play Raft of the Medusa is about an AIDS therapy group, and– along with Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart –is one of the first dramatic works dealing with the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
One day, by chance, Pintauro saw a notice on a bulletin board at the Judson Church in the West Village– an AIDS therapy group was asking for dramatic material to use in its sessions. He wrote Raft for them to perform, but by the time he’d finished the play, the group no longer existed– all its members had died. His play went on to a successful off-Broadway run at the Minetta Lane Theater, and has received many productions since then, including a production in London at the Gate Theater in Soho which garnered rave reviews from the British press.
Raft has a deep humanity, embracing men and women, gay and straight. When Joe approached me about writing a musical with him based on the play, I was honored to be asked to write songs for a musical that would deal with such deep and important material. I felt that a musical version would be able to reach so many people — like Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City or Jonathan Larson’s Rent. We wrote a number of songs, which received concert performances in New York to glowing reviews, including a performance at Downtown Music Productions Benson AIDS Series at St Marks Church in New York’s East Village, but the full musical has not yet been staged.
It’s Not The Same World is the opening song of the musical. It’s a tribute to the memory of those who have passed, and an anthem to the strength and courage of those who are surviving in these terrible times.
Michael, HIV positive himself, has lost his long-time partner Donald to AIDS. Donald’s ghost appears to Michael, and sings this song about the life they shared.
In a flippant moment, a wealthy member of the group observes that euthanasia is legal in Holland, and proposes a daring plan. “Let’s all go to Amsterdam,” he says. “They put you to sleep–I’ll pay for all the tickets.” The others respond by singing this song about all the other places in the world that they’d rather go instead—“We’re not ready to be dead already!”
Frisco, the youngest member of the group, plays a pivotal role in the dramatic development. He possesses an ethereal, almost other-worldly beauty, and along with his open-hearted and powerful spirituality he serves as a poignant symbol of the terrible devastation and destruction of the AIDS epidemic. He dies at the end of the play, and the others sing this song as the curtain falls.
Performance at the Benson AIDS Series, New York. Sung by Deborah Tranelli, Patrick Ryan Sullivan and John Ruess; Roger Tréfousse, piano