BWW Previews: Mark Morris Prepares for World Premiere of ACIS AND GALATEA
Mark Morris prepares for world premiere of ACIS AND GALATEA
This weekend, as we all overload on sugar and attend the obligatory Passion performance, Mark Morris is getting ready to unveil his latest opus. His new production of Handel's ACIS AND GALATEA, one of the most beloved English language operas, has its world premiere next week at Cal Performances, Berkeley (April 25 - 27), before traveling to Celebrity Series of Boston (May 15-18) for its East Coast premiere.
ACIS is the perfect opera to help us all emerge from a seemingly interminable winter, transporting us to the verdant plains of ancient Arcadia. The pastoral opera premiered in the summer of 1718 at a private estate in the English countryside. With its lavish gardens and spectacular fountains, the setting was perfect to tell the love story of Acis, a shepherd, and Galatea, a water nymph.
But there's trouble in paradise when a jealous cyclops, Polyphemus, comes between them. Though Galatea is disinterested, Polyphemus won't take no for an answer. Morris quips that the monster "reacts in the only way he knows how. Like most men."
Determined to have Galatea, Polyphemus kills Acis. But, the lovers are ultimately united through divine intervention. Acis is transformed into a river so that Galatea can always swim in his waves. The potential spectacular scenic transformation is what has made this myth so ripe for adaptation on the stage.
Morris's ACIS, however, is minimalist. "The story is told through singing, dancing, sight, and sound," he says, rather than overblown spectacle. "The set design is very simple and direct: 4 drops to change the look and define the stage space. There are no props, no furniture."
Still, he has managed to enlist excellent designers who also happen to be friends and long time collaborators. Adrianne Lobel has created stunning backdrops adapted from her own paintings made en plein air during recent summers. Fashion and costume designer Issac Mizrahi has created original textiles inspired by Lobel's backdrops. Together, they have created a summery, chic production that keeps the emphasis on the performers.
And, with the exceptionally talented dancers of the Mark Morris Dance Group, you don't need the trappings of grand opera or ballet to tell a story. Morris and his company have been working on ACIS "in periods of 1 or 2 weeks over the last 6 months or so," he reports.
"The last step is the addition of the singers," he explains. "I move them into the existing structure and change many things as we work together to achieve a satisfying balance."
The balance Morris achieves between music and dance is, of course, one of the hallmarks of his work. He is committed to performing with live musicians of the highest caliber, and has even been known to pick up the baton himself.
For ACIS, Morris has engaged some of the finest interpreters of 18th century music in North America. The renowned conductor Nicholas McGegan directs his own Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale for performances in Berkley, and serves as guest conductor with the Handel and Haydn Society's Period Orchestra and Chorus for performances in Boston.
The impressive roster of guest soloists includes tenor Thomas Cooley and soprano Sherezade Panthaki in the title roles. Baritone Douglas Williams performs the role of Polyphemus. All three perform frequently together under McGegan's leadership. "There is no conductor in whose hands I feel more secure, more confident, and more supported," Cooley says.
One of the most exciting aspects of performing the music of Handel is that his scores invites performers to improvise. Singers like Cooley can display their virtuosity and intimate knowledge of Handel's musical style by adding vocal ornaments.
Because Cooley has worked so closely with McGegan over the years, he comments, "I know I can be expressive in the most spontaneous way and that Nic and the wonderful Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra will respond instinctively and organically."
Though Cooley has performed the role of Acis with Jane Glover and Music of the Baroque, the music in this production is slightly different. Rather than use one of Handel's several versions of ACIS, Morris has chosen to use Mozart's arrangement, which expands and modernizes the orchestral ensemble to include the bassoon, clarinet, and horn.
There are a few differences in the Mozart arrangement that are more significant than changes in instrumentation, however. Cooley explains, "One of the most challenging musical things we had to deal with in this version is that Mozart alternates which singer sang what line during the duets."
"We struggled for a good week with that," he confesses, "bending our brains around the new parts which sounded both familiar and still so, so wrong. Finally, it clicked. But not with out much swearing and stamping of feet, and perhaps a curse or two thrown Mozart's way."
Some may balk that Morris is performing Mozart's take on Handel - a classic case of Mark Morris being Mark Morris. But, the appeals of the arrangement are obvious. With a larger ensemble, Morris's ACIS can play to larger venues, since it need not rely on the more intimate sound of an early eighteenth-century ensemble.
Since Morris has gathered together so many exceptional artists for to create this production, ACIS is guaranteed to be a success. Of course, gorgeous music and a charming libretto helps a bit, too. And, at a terse 90-minutes, ACIS is the perfect piece to introduce new audiences to opera, dance, and classical music.
ACIS has its New York premier this summer as part of the 48th Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center (August 7-9, 2014). In the 2014-15 season, the production travels to the Harriman-Jewell Series, Kansas City (February 6 and 7, 2015), and the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (May 1 and 2, 2015). To learn more, visit http://www.acisandgalatea.org/.
In addition to the support of its commissioning partners, ACIS AND GALATEA is made possible by generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and by the Mark Morris Dance Group's New Works Fund.
ABOUT MARK MORRIS AND MARK MORRIS DANCE GROUP
MARK MORRIS was born on August 29, 1956, in Seattle, Washington, where he studied with Verla Flowers and Perry Brunson. In the early years of his career, he performed with the Koleda Balkan Dance Ensemble, and later with the dance companies of Lar Lubovitch, Hannah Kahn, Laura Dean, and Eliot Feld. He formed the Mark Morris Dance Group in 1980, and has since created more than 140 works for the company. From 1988-1991, he was Director of Dance at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, the national opera house of Belgium. Among the works created during this time were three evening-length dances: L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato; Dido and Aeneas; and The Hard Nut. In 1990, he founded the White Oak Dance Project with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Morris, much in demand as a ballet choreographer, has created eight works for the San Francisco Ballet since 1994 and received commissions from many others. Now music director for the 2013 Ojai Music Festival, Morris is noted for his musicality and has been described as "undeviating in his devotion to music" (The New Yorker). He has conducted performances for the Mark Morris Dance Group since 2006. He has worked extensively in opera, directing and choreographing productions for the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Gotham Chamber Opera, English National Opera and The Royal Opera, Covent Garden. In 1991, he was named a Fellow of the MacArthur Foundation. He has received eleven honorary doctorates to date. In 2006, Morris received the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs Mayor's Award for Arts & Culture and a WQXR Gramophone Special Recognition Award "for being an American ambassador for classical music at home and abroad." He is the subject of a biography, Mark Morris, by Joan Acocella (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) and Marlowe & Company published a volume of photographs and critical essays entitled Mark Morris' L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato: A Celebration. Morris is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. In recent years, he has received the Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement (2007), the Leonard Bernstein Lifetime Achievement Award for the Elevation of Music in Society (2010), the Benjamin Franklin Laureate Prize for Creativity (2012) and the Cal Performances Award of Distinction in the Performing Arts (2013).
The MARK MORRIS DANCE GROUP was formed in 1980 and gave its first concert that year in New York City. The company's touring schedule steadily expanded to include cities in the U.S. and around the world, and in 1986 it made its first national television program for the PBS series Dance in America. In 1988, MMDG was invited to become the national dance company of Belgium, and spent three years in residence at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. The company returned to the United States in 1991 as one of the world's leading dance companies, performing across the U.S. and at major international festivals. Based in Brooklyn, NY, the company maintains strong ties to several cities around the world, most notably its West Coast home, Cal Performances in Berkeley, CA, and its Midwest home, the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. MMDG also appears regularly in New York City, Boston, MA; Fairfax, VA; and Seattle, WA. MMDG made its debut at the Mostly Mozart Festival in 2002 and at the Tanglewood Music Festival in 2003 and has since been invited to both festivals annually. From the company's many London seasons, it has garnered two Laurence Olivier Awards. MMDG is noted for its commitment to live music, a feature of every performance on its international touring schedule since 1996. MMDG collaborates with leading orchestras, opera companies, and musicians including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, percussionist and composer Zakir Hussain, jazz trio The Bad Plus, pianists Emanuel Ax, Garrick Ohlsson, as well as with the English National Opera, among others. In September of 2001, the Mark Morris Dance Center opened in Brooklyn, NY, to provide a home for the company, rehearsal space for the dance community, outreach programs for local children and seniors, and a school offering dance classes to students of all ages. For more information, visit www.mmdg.org.