In a Grove(2021)
an opera in two parts
libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann
based on the short story by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
further information available at inagroveopera.com
The Woodcutter/The Outlaw (Luther Harlow)—baritone
The Priest/The Medium—countertenor*
The Policeman/The Settler (Ambrose Raines)—tenor
Leona Raines/Leona’s Mother—soprano
*This part may be performed by a mezzo-soprano as needed. In addition, the roles may be split up between 8 singers, especially in the context of University productions.
fl(+a.fl.), clarinet in b-flat(+cl in A, B.cl.), hn, 2perc, hp, piano/keyboard, violin, cello, and electronics. All performers are amplified and the singers have live electronic processing (see note below).
Commissioned by the Los Angeles Opera with additional support from Raulee Marcus and Stephen Block, Pittsburgh Opera, and Metropolis Ensemble.
World Premiere Performances
February 19, 22, 25, 27, March 1, and 3, 2022
Pittsburgh Opera, Pittsburgh, PA
Woodcutter / The Outlaw: Yazid Gray
Policeman / The Man: Andrew Turner
Leona Raines / Leona’s Mother: Madeline Ehlinger
Priest / Medium: Chuanyuan Liu
Directed by Mary Birnbaum
Conducted by Antony Walker
Forthcoming performances at LA Opera. Development support came from Mahogany Opera and the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, Metropolis Ensemble and Andrew Cyr in New York City, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the University of Miami Frost School of Music and Alan Johnson, and the Mannes School of Music in New York and Emma Griffin.
Purchase vocal score from Project Schott New York
Performance materials available from Schott Music Internationally
A ghost forest in the mountains of Oregon, 1921— the aftermath of a wildfire. We, the audience, are the silent, unseen interlocutor, gathering testimony from seven witnesses / potential perpetrators of a crime.
A woodcutter states that he found a body in the grove, on the mountain where he goes to cut wood. A priest testifies that he passed a man leading a woman on a horse along the Foundry Post Road. A policeman recounts his arrest of Luther Harlow, a local vigilante, who some say is responsible for the spate of women gone missing from the mountain. A woman describes her daughter, Leona, an aspiring botanist, whose new husband, Ambrose, a schoolteacher, appears to have been murdered. The mother pleads with the interlocutor to find the girl, who is missing.
Luther Harlow confesses. Taken by the beauty of a young woman he encountered along the mountain road, he had tried to lure the girl and her husband into a nearby grove, promising treasure. As Luther tells his story, he relives the events: The girl resists Luther’s ruse, but her husband, eager to regale his new bride with pretty trinkets, follows Luther into the grove. Luther quickly disposes of the young man, and when Leona discovers her husband bound and gagged, she pulls a knife on Luther, who wrestles her to the ground, intending to assault the girl. But she slips from his grasp, pelting Luther with a rock, knocking him out just long enough for her to free her husband, arming him with her knife. Ambrose is hesitant at first, but Leona urges him to fight. Although the schoolteacher is no match for the vigilante, he somehow holds his own. Soon enough, however, Ambrose’s strength wanes. Leona intervenes by shooting Ambrose’s rifle into the air, and in the confusion, Luther stabs him, grabs the gun and flees, leaving him for dead.
Leona reluctantly delivers her testimony: of having encountered a dubious man on the mountain road; of her husband Ambrose’s misguided desire to follow the stranger into the grove; of being left to wait alone in the gloam, calling on the relics of the ghost forest for protection. When the man returns without Ambrose, she follows, terrified of what has befallen her husband. In the grove, Luther attempts to assault her, but she eludes him, hurling a stone at him, freeing Ambrose so that he can defend them both. Ambrose hesitates, and she lashes out at him. Ambrose has no choice but to fight a losing battle. Leona again steps in, pointing Ambrose’s rifle to the sky and firing. In the tumult, the marauder disappears, and Leona discovers that her husband is bleeding. She gathers medicinal plants to staunch the wound. But as she tends to Ambrose, he jealously rebukes her, accusing her of having consorted with Luther. Thrown by his anger, she balks, and in that moment he expires. Believing she killed him, she tries, over and over again to take her own life, but fails. Leona confesses that she murdered her husband.
A medium channels the dead man, who articulates the secret Ambrose was never able to tell his new bride—that his heart has always been weak, ever since suffering from rheumatic fever as a small child. The medium and Ambrose relive the incidents leading up to Ambrose’s death from his perspective, tormented by the fact that in his final moments, he allowed his wife to believe it was she who killed him, rather than his failing heart.
IN A GROVE opens with a wash of white noise—a sonic representation of wildfire and smoke. As the opera progresses, rhythms, harmonies, motives, and eventually melodies emerge out of this aural fog, mirroring the way facts emerge, piece by piece, in this musical detective story.
As our characters relate their tales, motives and melodies recur, but they also evolve, paralleling each narrator’s shifting perspective. A throwaway melody in Luther’s scene becomes the basis for Leona’s aria in hers; finally, this melody becomes the core of the final confession, a duet between a Medium and Ambrose.
Throughout the work, the voices are transformed electronically. I tried to exemplify remembrance’s flawed roughness by distorting the voices using reverb, pitch-shifting, and, granulation—effects that suggest that our characters’ memories are flawed, foggy, or plain wrong.
In setting out to compose IN A GROVE, I tried to take something unconventional—a story told over and over again from different perspectives—and marry it to something familiar: music, where themes, repetition, and variation help us navigate and understand this mysterious tale.
What we discovered in the process of making IN A GROVE is that Leona is the heart of the story. And that truth is not just prismatic, elusive, and fallible, it is personal, emotional, razor-edged. The truths and untruths that we perceive, gloss over, embrace, refute or deny drive the trajectories of our lives. The uncanny weave of opacity and transparencies so aptly conjured in Akutagawa’s remarkable tale makes up the fabric of lived experience. The story’s form, that of seven testimonies, asks us to listen differently—to approach narrative, language, image and sound in new ways, and in so doing, perhaps, to see and hear anew. Obfuscation is pervasive, and yet the crystalline architecture of Chris’s music serves as a revelatory container for the ineffable. Mary’s exquisite staging plunges us into an ever-shifting grove sited within a ghost forest in the Pacific Northwest, a setting that mines a series of profoundly American truths.
— Stephanie Fleischmann
When Chris and Stephanie approached me about turning Ryūnosuke Atkutagawa’s short story “In a Grove” into an opera, I was captivated by their idea of using music to tell an iterative story about the prismatic nature of truth. In the era of ‘fake news’, ’truthers’, and algorithms that lead to ‘truth decay’, our timely tale deals with the subjective nature of human experience; how truth is always colored by the truth-teller’s history, perspective and expectation.
This is not a straight adaptation of “In a Grove”, as Stephanie places the action in America, and closer to our time than Atkutagawa’s story. We owe an additional debt to Ambrose Bierce’s “The Moonlit Road” (1907), which uses a similar frame to explicate a crime. Stephanie set our opera in 1921, the year Atkutagawa’s story was written, in the forests of Oregon.
Chris has created a musical language which shimmers through Stephanie’s beautiful text, sometimes illuminating a moment and sometimes purposely blurring the edges of a word or idea. To give visual dimension to the alternating clarity and intricacy of the story, I was inspired by artists who play games with obfuscation of perspective like Fujiko Nakaya, who sculpts with fog, and James Turrell, who shifts the viewers’ perception with light, The designers Mimi Lien, Oana Botez, and Yuki Link Nakase have created a world that reveals itself in layers; the clean architecture of the design unfolds like an infinity mirror as we learn there are always two or more sides to every story, an unseen parallel experience running alongside our own, sometimes violently colliding into our world.
Through the addictive suspense of a whodunit, In a Grove asks us: how does the harm we believe we have inflicted on others continue to live in us? And can those wounds ever heal?
Note on electronics
In a Grove is a fully amplified work that requires a mixing engineer of equally high caliber as the singers and orchestra musicians. Each instrument should be amplified individually and the four singers should each have a high-quality wireless mic.
Reverb is essential to the mixing of In a Grove—the creation of resonance by the piano, harp, and vibraphones must be supplemented with a long, warm, sustaining reverb. In addition, the engineer should mix the piece live to help with balance and text clarity.
A musician (who is not the mixing engineer, a rehearsal pianist is suggested) is asked to cue a series of prerecorded samples that blend seamlessly with the live performance. These cues are both in the vocal score and the full score and must be performed exactly in time. In addition, each of the four singers are run through a few forms of very simple electronic processing: reverb, granulation, delay, and pitch shifting of various kinds. All of the vocal effects and samples are available through a simple patch made in Max that can be downloaded for free (as can the program). It is suggested that engineer have some passing familiarity with live electronics, contemporary music, as well as contemporary popular mixing techniques, and that they collaborate with the composer for at least the first performance.
David Sanchez designed the interface for the electronics in Max.
The pianist also doubles on a standard midi keyboard playing back samples in a sampler created in Logic (but can be played back in any program that has a sampler) The sampler must be placed in a way that the pianist can access both the keyboard and the piano at the same time.
Mr. Cerrone’s score, for nine instrumentalists and electronics, opens with a wind-like wash of sound; the instrumental soundscape, with fragments of melody subtly woven into a foundation of percussion, remains alluringly and dramatically hypnotic.Heidi Waleson, The Wall Street Journal
It’s an insightful, thought-provoking exploration of the nature of truth. In short, a truly excellent opera and a terrific premiere on Saturday.
This is exactly the sort of work the opera world should be programming…this is a smart, captivating work that deserves additional performances.Jeremy Reynolds, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Shrouded In Mystery, Shadowed With Doubt, A Brilliant New OperaRick Perdian, Classical Voice North America
“…classic example of an all round, world-class collaboration”George B. Parous, onStage Pittsburgh
Perhaps Debussy put it best when he said the ideal librettist “is a poet who deals in hints,” and one could say that this is how composer Cerrone has written the music for this remarkable opera. It’s an innovative work of transcendence that will reward any aesthetic sensibility — whether classical, modern, or futuristic.Stuart Sheppard, Pittsburgh Quarterly