NORTH ADAMS — Transforming Ernest Hemingway’s iconic tale “The Old Man and the Sea” into an opera is like heading into deep waters to catch a mighty fish as yet unseen.
Accompanied by fellow seafarers and following a week-long residency, on March 25 prolific international composer Paola Prestini brings a work-in-progress preview of her new opera to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts' Hunter Center for an excerpted performance and conversation with the creative team.
“The Old Man and the Sea” cello opera is a collaboration between Prestini, Pulitzer-winning librettist Royce Vavrek and distinguished Slovenian conductor and director Karmina Silec, with Prestini’s husband Jeffrey Zeigler as featured cellist.
“The project began because of my obsession with water and the ocean, and also [Hemingway’s] book,” said Prestini, as she prepared for a concert at the United Nations. “You have twin threads that essentially tell you what Hemingway’s life was like when he was writing, and then key moments in 'The Old Man and the Sea' that are plot points driving you towards the end.”
Set in the Havana bar El Floridita, the opera follows Hemingway’s life as he’s writing his novella, and visits enduring themes of ecology, aging, religion and baseball.
“The visions he’s manifesting for the book are inspired by the moment in time [when] he wrote it, and the state of mind he was in,” Prestini said.
Written in Cuba in 1951, “The Old Man and the Sea” revived Hemingway’s waning reputation and brought him considerable fame, winning the 1953 Pulitzer Prize and contributing to the author’s 1954 Nobel Prize In Literature. It has inspired films, plays, paintings, animation, even a Korean opera and a cocktail.
Prestini’s version is particularly poignant, as Hemingway’s mother relinquished a New York City operatic career to support her family in Chicago, where she urged young Ernest to play the cello.
In the story set in Cuba, elderly Spanish fisherman Santiago breaks a long dry spell by relentlessly reeling in a majestic marlin, then battles marauding sharks that devour his catch on his way to shore.
“It’s an opera I’ve been working on for many years [in] different incarnations,” Prestini said. “Sometimes I think projects take this long because they manifest something you can’t quite foresee when you started.”
Her initial collaboration included renowned theater maker Robert Wilson. “We decided the work needed a different kind of vision,” Prestini said, “but so much of [Wilson’s] dramaturgy and ideas still exist.”
The work is produced by modern opera champions Beth Morrison Projects. Prestini first met librettist Royce Vavrek at New York City Opera Vox festival which Beth Morrison produced, she recalled.
The opera is scored for a principal cast of three singers and a small choir, with cello, percussion and electronics. The singers appear both in the bar and in the story: Hemingway doubles as fisherman Santiago, his young seafaring friend, Manolin, is also a bar patron.
Prestini’s longtime collaborator and muse Helga Davis plays El Floridita's owner, nicknamed “La Mar” (The Sea), and also La Virgen, a folkloric Cuban religious icon reportedly found at sea in the 1600s and revered in El Cobre, Cuba. “She serves as a type of spiritual underpinning to the work,” Prestini said.
Prestini includes interludes about Hemingway’s life she calls "Pop Songs," “fantastic breaks in the piece [with] this very sexy letter from Marlene Dietrich and an incredible moment about Joe DiMaggio.”
The choir of New York City singers “supports everything, from the DiMaggio section to ocean sounds, which is pretty expansive in terms of a tapestry for choir,” Prestini said.
Introduced by a mutual friend, Davis and Prestini first worked together 15 years ago on “Oceanic Verses,” which explored the composer’s southern Italian history.
“She was just in the beginning stages of writing [the opera], and needed someone for the role of the Queen who could sing high, low and improvise,” Davis recalled. “Paola and I met, and it was love at first sight. It’s always beautiful to have a piece written on your instrument, she was able to craft something that ultimately belonged to me.”
“Paola’s music is so passionate, and there isn’t a way around that, you can’t cheat passion, not as a composer and certainly not as a performer,” Davis added. “[It’s not] how many notes are on the page, but the space and joy and provocation of those notes that are challenging.”
Prestini was drawn to Davis, the composer said, “because of her incredible range as an artist. She has an incredible four-octave range and is an incredible actor. Spiritually, there’s something about her that really makes me want to write works for her. This is our second large piece [and] a deep collaboration.”
Literature and poetry are Prestini’s primary sources of inspiration.
“I live for books,” she said. A grand production of her intergenerational opera “Edward Tulane” at Minnesota Opera last fall garnered critical acclaim.
“I had read that book to my son and fallen in love with it,” she said.
Born in Italy and raised in Arizona near the Mexican border, Prestini started composing as a child.
“I didn’t like playing the piano,” she recalled, “I always wanted to write my own music.”
She met husband and frequent collaborator Zeigler while both were students at Juilliard.
“I feel so fortunate to be working with someone who understands who I am as an artist and as a human, then brings his own perspectives to my work with such care,” she said.
They live in Brooklyn, N.Y., with son Tommaso where Prestini co-founded National Sawdust, which she describes as “an incubator and performance space that presents, commissions and mentors young artists.” They call it “a devotional place for sound,” she said.
Prestini has found Mass MoCA residencies “hugely influential” in developing works such as “Aging Magician,” “Oceanic Verses” and “Houses of Zodiac.” Both she, Davis and Zeigler frequently participate in projects there.
“Mass MoCA is a creative home where I am welcome to have a little bit of time away from the madness of New York City,” Davis said, “and think and walk and look at the art as a vehicle towards my own voice and inspirations.”
“It’s probably the most important place for me as an artist,” Prestini said, “where I can explore my craziest ideas and always be met with open arms and yeses.”
IF YOU GO
“The Old Man and the Sea”
What: A work-in-progress preview of Paola Prestini's new opera followed by a conversation on stage with the principal creative team.
Where: Hunter Center, Mass MoCA, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams
When: 8 p.m. March 25
Admission: $35, advance; $45, day of, museum admission not included. $70, preferred seating and museum admission. $15, members.
Information and tickets: 413-662-2111, massmoca.org
COVID-19 Policy: Masks are required in the Hunter Center when not eating or drinking