'Ethan Frome' novel becomes an opera

Thursday October 4, 2012

LENOX -- "Ethan Frome," Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edith Wharton's tragic tale set in the Berkshire Hills, lingers in the memory -- an anguished vision of doomed love within a tormented triangle. Inspired by a local sledding accident and written 100 years ago at the Mount, the tale is perhaps the best known of Wharton's works and has appeared both on film and on stage.

Philadelphia-based composer Caryn Block has now turned "Ethan Frome" into a three-act opera and will premiere selected scenes at a Cantilena Chamber Choir concert at Trinity Church at 5 p.m. on Sunday as part of the Berkshire Coaching Weekend.

She will also introduce her work at a lecture demonstration with singers at The Mount at 4 p.m. on Saturday, and will talk on Sunday at noon at Lenox Library, where an historical exhibit on the original sledding incident is on display.

In a recent phone interview, Block explained she started out as a performing flutist.

"I'd start improvising when my part was over, and it just grew from there," she said.

Drawn to the music of Charles Ives and Aaron Cope land -- "and the period in Paris in the 1920s when all the artists converged together" -- she became an interdisciplinary composer, leading a busy career composing for the concert hall as well as for dance, film and theater, and performing with her ensemble, the Encore Chamber Players, at venues including the Lincoln Center.

Block described her compositions as centering around novel instrumentation, interesting texts, artworks and poems. In 2000 she introduced a dramatic song cycle based on Wharton writings at an international conference in Newport, R.I. There she met the late Mount Vice President Scott Marshall, who encouraged her to make "Ethan Frome" an opera subject.

As Wharton didn't allow the characters to express their emotions freely -- she once de scribed them as "granite outcroppings, but half emerged from the soil and scarcely more articulate" -- Block had to ask herself, "how do I make an opera when there's so little dialogue?"

"It's more like a psychological drama," she explained. "It's a tiny little novella, but I've gotten so involved in the characters it's become a large scale opera."

She has to bring out the aspects of each character musically, not just through the libretto, she said, and also capture the New England vernacular and speech patterns.

Block assured listeners that it's not all dark.

"I've found that there are two scenes that bring lightness into the opera." she said. "I have to find ways of bringing forth the human spirit and dimension."

Block sees opera as "the grand form of music, that brings together so many of the other arts."

Mount director Susan Wissler introduced Block to Cantilena Chamber Choir music director Andrea Goodman. "[Block] sent me some music, and I played it," Goodman said by phone, "and it was great."

She described the music as "dissonant, in an updated sense -- our ears are used to things that are maybe a little bit out there."

"When it's discordant, atonal and sounds harsh, it's because the three characters are having an argument," she explained. "The chorus numbers are quite lovely."

Now in its ninth season, the Cantilena Chamber Choir performs a wide range of mostly a cappella classical music programs, from Monteverdi Ves pers to English seasonal holiday music. For this concert, the choir and soloists Karen Swann, Mary Verdi and Steve Dahlin will have piano accompaniment.

"There are some church scenes [in the opera]," Good man said. "We're very well suited for singing that kind of music."

As the opera continues to take form, the choir has found itself at the forefront of Block's composing process. "She's been changing some things at the request of some of the singers," Goodman said. "It's a work in progress."

Sunday's program will also include vintage Gilded Age recordings collected by phonograph enthusiast Wally Stock accompanied by the choir, and the Gloria from "Mozart's Twelfth Mass" by Wenzel Muller.

"I've always had a love and connection for the Berkshires," said Block, who attended area ballet and music camps as a child. "I had some wonderful early experiences in the arts there."

Now the Berkshires will experience some of her own musical art in return.


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