Not all birdies sing pretty. Think peacock shrieks and the aubade of grackles outside your bedroom window. Despite all that, composers have long considered feathered songsters to be prime operatic material. Of local interest, note Santa Fe Opera productions featuring a significant raven (Marvin David Levy’s The Tower), both real and mechanical birds (Stravinsky’s The Nightingale) and a simple generic “bird” (Judith Weir’s Blond Eckbert).
Other ornithological examples abound. Rossini had his magpie. Mozart toyed briefly with a goose from Cairo. Wagner had a thing for swans, ravens and a loquacious Forest Bird. Next month the Los Angeles Opera revives a rarity: Walter Braunfels’ Aristophanes-based work from 1920, The Birds. Even my own childhood introduction to opera was avian: Rimsky’s Le Coq d’ Or. So why not, for a harmless parlor game, play musical birds for yourself?
Or, better yet, head over to the Lensic March 27 and 28 for Santa Fe New Music’s really big youth opera, The Language of Birds, with composer, conductor, and founding impresario of SFNM, John Kennedy, at the helm. It’s the second time around for Kennedy’s work. He received a commission from the Sarasota Opera for a new piece for its thriving youth program, and this two-act work for young voices had its premiere there in 2004.
For his libretto, Kennedy chose a Russian folktale retold by children’s author Rafe Martin, known for his adaptations of traditional stories, mostly from Asian or Native American sources. It’s a tale of two brothers, the elder one selfish and sly, the younger compassionate and wise. Because of a kind deed to an endangered fledgling, the younger brother learns the language of birds. After a shipboard adventure reveals the power of this knowledge, the two find themselves in the kingdom of Czar Demyan, sleepless and tormented by the incessant chatter of three crows.
The elder brother tries and, under pain of death, fails to resolve the Czar’s predicament. The younger, able to understand the crows’ language, allows the ruler to find sleep once more. As his reward, he receives the hand of the Princess and half the kingdom. His brother, forgiven, becomes his keeper of horses.
Because of the girl-heavy auditions here, Kennedy altered the libretto: The brothers have become sisters, the Czar a Queen and the Princess a Prince. The essential fabric of the story remains the same, but Kennedy tells SFR, “We’ve added an element of girls’ lib.”
Like most fairy tales, this story is rich in moral implication. That’s one of the reasons Kennedy chose it.
“There’s depth here, and an appeal to all ages. It’s a challenging tale, plus there are lots of roles. And the environmental message is clear: The world of the birds, the natural world and our human world are interconnected,” Kennedy says. Sympathy and kindness will trump mere cleverness every time.
Kennedy’s music presents fine opportunities for his many young artists. Too often, youth operas are sappy, one-dimensional works that only a parent can love. Kennedy has devised a lyrical, melodic, through-composed score, easily available to audiences of all ages. It’s rhythmically complex though lightly scored, an extension of the warm-hearted American vein mined by, say, Copland and Barber. It’s moving and affectionate without pretense, considerate of young voices and dramatically effective.
The production itself commands respect. More than 60 young people ages 4 to 19, selected from many area schools, from every economic bracket, participate in a huge variety of roles. As Kennedy points out, they pay no required tuition fees. They’re committed, they work hard and, in addition to musical values, they learn discipline and self-mastery. They’ll be accompanied by a small professional orchestra.
SFNM in general and The Language of Birds in particular, as significant contributors to the community, depend heavily upon reciprocity, upon the community’s participation, both financial and otherwise. Kennedy describes the “message” of his opera in two words, words that might apply equally well to the community’s support of this and other SFNM projects.
The Language of Birds
7 pm Friday, March 27
2 pm and 7 pm Saturday, March 28
211 W. San Francisco St.