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BWW Review: MARTIN HALPERN CHAMBER OPERAS Dream at Shetler Studios

The best part of living in New York is that some of our most radically creative artists are performing. Unadorned studio spaces such as Shetler Studios on West 54th Street in midtown Manhattan host exclusive gatherings, where all of the high pomp of the fine arts strips down in an air of charming modesty.

In this way, composer, librettist, and classics scholar Martin Halpern served as usher, emcee, and conductor for the few New Yorkers fortunate enough to appreciate his latest production of two chamber operas, The Sculpture and The Hour Glass, drawing freely on the dramaturgy of Yeats and Ibsen to comparable effect, as both chamber operas investigate very similar psychological inquiries.

Published in 1899, in the first English translation of When We Dead Awaken by William Archer, Ibsen critiqued the bourgeois commercialization of art as "double-faced". The duality of art and artist is a crucial point for understanding the chamber opera adaptation by Halpern. When a person assumes the ego of the artist, such as by inspiration or pride, the art can take control, overpowering and transforming the humanity of the person, just as it does in the eye of the beholder.

The Sculpture, based on the Ibsen play does not explore the entire narrative. Instead, Halpern has extracted one dream sequence and exaggerated the dramaturgy. The protagonist, a sculptor named Rubek, dreams in the middle of a particularly weary, drunken night of introspective, artistic conflict. During the dream his model Irene, the woman who he sought to depict in stone, visits him. Her role befits divine intervention as a post-Romantic metaphor for modern conscience.

The dream woman, angel, and subject of the sculptor is played by soprano Alisa Peterson, who made her Carnegie Hall debut in performances of Haydn and John Rutter in 2011. In his 16th appearance in a Halpern chamber opera, baritone Jim Trainor plays the sculptor and theology professor.

Sixty-two years after A Christmas Carol first appeared, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats published a similarly themed short play called The Hour Glass. Spiritual intervention is the common thread. Whether by a dream figure in The Hour Glass and The Sculpture or ghosts of time in A Christmas Carol, all equally impress a more compassionate worldview in a relatively unyielding male antihero.

From The Sculpture to The Hour Glass, Peterson shone in the embodiment of two very distinct characters, from the hurt model, to the witty student. Trainor, on the other hand, performed both of his characters to a comparable effect, displaying artist and scholar alike as marred by a conflicted egotism. The thematic music of Halpern, played expertly by pianist Earl Buys, diverged only very subtly between the two chamber operas.

Ibsen, Yeats and Halpern dramatize the polemics of conscience. For an artist, as for a true thinker, good has a wholly unique meaning from strict moral rightness. Artistic and philosophic goodness is more aligned to truth and beauty, and so is at times iconoclastic with respect to the prevailing obedience of status quo morality.

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