Opera: Sarah Kirkland-Snider / Penelope

The Psappha Ensemble (2012)
Jessica Walker (vocalist), Richard Balcombe (conductor), Conrad Marshall (flute), Dov Goldberg (clarinet), Naomi Atherton (French horn), Tracey Redfern (trumpet), Benjamin Powell (electronics), Mike Smith (drum kit), Tim Williams (percussion), Benedict Holland (violin), Susie Meszaros (viola), Jennifer Langridge (cello).


On the enthusiastic instruction of my viola teacher, I checked in with the Psappha Ensemble’s video of the UK premiere of Penelope by Sarah Kirkland Snider (music) and Ellen McLaughlin (lyrics). My viola guru wanted me to see this piece to give me a clue about others like myself who are composing in crossover pop/classical forms. 

Contrary to the title categorization I give this post, Penelope is not an opera but a song cycle. But things are changing in he world of hybrid forms and with operas being so expensive, tough to stage, and hard to attract audiences to it feels silly to draw lines of demarcation between modern serious works for vocal and ensemble so I’m fine tossing Penelope into my opera bucket.

Ms. Kirkland Snider is a contemporary composer who sleeps in a pond and is one of the artistic directors at New Amsterdam Records, a music marque that specializes in releasing works from crossover artists and composers who are bound by community and exhibit a defiantly genre-breaking spirit. Her Penelope – available on the New Amsterdam label – is a song cycle featuring an alto vocalist who is the wife of a soldier who went missing in some unnamed war only to return unexpectedly when hope was abandoned. The 14-song suite is scored for chamber players, drums, and electronic instruments and is about an hour long. Jessica Walker is the vocalist for the video premiere and she does a fine job in that role.

The string writing of Penelope is exquisite and more than a little demanding in the need for the player’s attention to detail. I imagine the score to be something massively annotated and looking like one of those trigonometry equations that you had to pass over in your SAT exam to make better time. The video shows the Psappha Ensemble‘s Benedict Holland, Susie Meszaros, and Jennifer Langridgegiving deep concentration to their parts with excellent results.

It was illuminating to see the effects of the trap drummer Mike Smith’s parts as they integrate with the ensemble. When he kicks in with a groove it shifts the music from a chamber orchestra footing into a post-rock feel. Things move back and forth between these two aural soundscapes like a rudderless boat riding tidal swells. Bicycle bells, slide guitar and electronics pop up here and there to enhance the mix.

You can hear the contributions of synthesist Benjamin Powell to this piece, but you cannot see him playing them. In accordance with the staging convention of live musical performances from pop arenas to the operatic pit, they banished the keyboardist deep into the shadows. If Mr. Powell did appear on camera I either missed it from blinking or mistook him for a stagehand. The camera crew chose to train their loving attention on singer Walker and the forward string players while giving the ‘non-classical’ players short shrift. Too bad – as a fellow synthesizer jockey (who knows all too well the humiliation of being shunted to deep stage left by sociopathic front men hell-bent upon asserting their dominance over other every other human they encounter) I wanted to see what knobs were being twiddled in support of this work.

The oblique song/segment titles (“The Lotus Eaters”, “Circe and the Hanged Man”, “Baby Teeth, Bones, and Bullets”) are not easily identified by the repeated lines in the song text. I had to refer to online materials to know where we were as the little YT progress bar moved rightward. Suffice to say that the words are not of the catchy variety and more in the realm of the deliciously WTF eclectic.

All in all the music and libretto of Penelope is very narrow in focus, narrowness which was probably necessary for the composer to constrain her many musical ideas and keep a constant rhythm. I found that the hour I invested in experiencing it seemed longer than it was from the repetitiousness of the emotional mood and flat musical dynamics. Penelope is artistically precious, but realized with such craft that it avoids being flat-out pretentious. Much beauty and originality and despite its lack of onstage drama or portability as a musical property (sorry but I don’t think many will be spinning selections from Penelope up on Pandora during a trip to the market). Still, it’s quite a nice musical work. Thank you Alyssa!