PEAK Performances Presents World Premiere Of THE ROMANCE OF THE ROSE
PEAK Performances presents the world premiere production of Kate Soper's opera The Romance of the Rose, directed by Michael Rau.
A contemporary allegory inspired by a 13th century poem, the sumptuous, surreal, and slyly humorous Romance of the Rose dramatizes the ways love, sex, and music wreak havoc on our sense of self. Pulitzer Prize nominee Soper "has made a specialty of turning dense, thorny, seemingly unmusical sources into elegant, surprisingly poignant art" (The New York Times), and Romance represents the most ambitious project to date for an artist who, as The New Yorker's Alex Ross wrote in 2017, "deserves a much bigger stage." Soper's original story and book for The Romance of the Rose fuses her own writing-and texts on love by a plethora of poets-with elements of the medieval French poem of the same name by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. Invited by The Dreamer (Lucas Steele, Tony Award nominee for The Great Comet), the audience's modern-day avatar The Lover (Devony Smith) enters an otherworldly landscape brimming with riddles. The opera shatters the experience of love into its many facets, embodied by allegorical personalities-the swooning sentimentalist God of Love (Phillip Bullock), the painstaking pragmatist Lady Reason (Brett Umlauf), a pure distillation of scathing Shame (Gelsey Bell), as well as personified Pleasure (Robert Wesey Mason) and Idleness (Ariadne Greif)-playing tug-of-war with the Lover's subconscious.
The Romance of the Rose is music directed and conducted by violinist Josh Modney and performed by a cast of seven singers: Gelsey Bell (soprano), Phillip Bullock (baritone), Ariadne Greif (soprano), Robert Wesley Mason (baritone), Devony Smith (mezzo-soprano), Lucas Steele (tenor), and Brett Umlauf (soprano), and members of the Wet Ink Ensemble. Performances take place at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University, April 2-5.
Soper writes, "When I first encountered the original text I was dazzled by its pan-philosophical scope, and only knew that I'd have to come back to it someday. And over the past three years, something contemporary began to rise out of the thicket of ideas. I hope audiences enjoy this late addition to the category of 'things humans make about love,' with its dramatic irony and slant rhymes and fixed verse, its vocoders and torch songs and white noise! For me, the experience of creating it has been one of continually arriving somewhere I never would have anticipated that nonetheless feels inevitable-like reading a poem, like watching an opera, like being in love."
Soper's opera bridges the allegorical and the everyday, the distant past and the present moment, as it transforms a 13th Century tale of courtship in an arresting exploration of contemporary, everyday love -in all its pleasures and dangers. Soper brings de Lorris and de Meun's strange hybrid poem into her own playful and inventive compositional world in part by using disparate vocal styles as characterization. The God of Love sings in romantic falsetto, made all the more beguiling by heavy reverb; Lady Reason's classical-styled voice is run through a vocoder; and Shame, who exists most blatantly within a new music sonic vocabulary, rips through it all with a distortion-processed voice, multiphonics, and electric guitar-while the contemporary Lover's voice is heard unmodified.
As Josh Modney, Rose's violinist, music director, conductor, and longtime Soper collaborator via Wet Ink Ensemble-describes, "The action of Rose thrusts this everywoman character, The Lover, into a situation where she must adapt as she is pulled in many different directions. The allegorical beings she encounters are represented by distinct vocal styles fused with particular instruments and electronic processing techniques. These become powerful sound entities that seem to exist in both medieval/ legendary and contemporary times, from The Dreamer, who may be a Troubadour or the earnest young narrator of a Broadway show, to Idleness and Pleasure, who exist alternately as a duo of madrigal and lounge singers, and the three main allegorical characters (Lady Reason, Shame, and The God of Love), whose period vocal styles are augmented and morphed by electronics (performed by Sam Pluta). All of this opens up a field of possibility for Kate's fabulously inventive orchestration and subversion of typical vocal/instrumental hierarchies, while creating a treacherous landscape for The Lover to navigate. It is a thrill, after over a decade of collaboration with Kate, to bring her work to Kasser Theater alongside the uniquely capable musicians of the Wet Ink Ensemble and this wonderful cast."
The Romance of the Rose is co-produced by PEAK Performances at Montclair State University, and is part of PEAK's 2019-2020 season, surrounding vocabularies of expression and communication across artistic (and spoken) languages and forms. Fittingly, Soper entwines and contrasts her authorial voice with various styles and periods of poetry according to an "allegory of language" to complement the characters' vocal styles: Shame always sings 20th and 21st century poetry, including excerpts from Stephen Berg, Allen Ginsberg, Jorie Graham, Alfred Lichtenstein, Marianne Moore, Edgar Allen Poe, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, and John Wieners; The God of Love is the only character who sings the Old French text of the original poem by de Lorris and de Meun; and Lady Reason consists entirely of Soper's own writing and moves between prose and highly regulated poetic forms like virelai and sestina. These textual juxtapositions, and the divergent voices delivering them, evoke the confounding and infuriating multitudes of being in love.
Similarly, Michael Rau and the creative team have worked to incorporate the pairing of medieval dream vision and contemporary naturalism into the work's set, costumes, and performance style. Rau elaborates: "There's something really modern about Kate's work in the way it asks impossible questions, like 'What is the nature of love and how do we understand it?' One of Kate's innovations is to embrace the use of allegory in the performance, where ideas are personified in a simplistic way-but in the original poem 'The Romance of the Rose' the use of allegories is quite confusing. Kate took that confusion and helped translate that into our 2020 understanding of love. Absolutely our cultures are completely different from 13th century France to 2020 in Montclair, NJ, but those older ideas still inhabit our world. This opera explores and critiques those older concepts of love, and examines how those ideas about love exist in our society today. In this way, the performance fulfills one of the more important functions of theater, to connect us to our past and to give us space to examine those ideas, and point us towards a new path."
ACP Executive Director Jedediah Wheeler says: "Kate has seized the PEAK opportunity with uninhibited passion! Nothing speaks to our mission more than an artist who takes to heart our promise that she can make an original work defying expectations."
Performances of The Romance of the Rose will take place Thursday, April 2 & Friday, April 3 at 7:30pm; Saturday, April 4 at 8:00pm; and Sunday, April 5 at 3:00pm at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University (1 Normal Ave, Montclair, NJ). Performances run 150 minutes, with an intermission. Tickets are affordably priced at $30, and can be purchased at www.peakperfs.org or 973.655.5112. Tickets are always free for Montclair State students.