an opera in one act
four solo voices, vocal ensemble (SATB), eleven players, and electronics
First Workshop Performances:
New York City Opera, VOX Festival
May 3, 2009, Kimmel Center at NYU, New York, NY
The Italian Academy at Columbia University and Red Light New Music
May 13, 2011, New York, NY
Commissioned by/Fully Staged Premiere:
Raulee Marcus and Stephen Block for The Industry, LA
October 19, 2013 at Union Station, LA
Available directly from Schott Music Corporation
The music of Invisible Cities is the result of my first collision with Calvino’s extraordinary novel. For years I had been unable to bridge categories of music, thinking that a work could be either lyrical or conceptually rigorous, but not both. Calvino’s novel, however, is a tightly structured mathematical work, yet also opens with the gorgeous line:
“In the lives of emperors there is a moment which follows pride in the boundless extension of the territories we have conquered, and the melancholy and relief of knowing we shall soon give up any thought of knowing and understanding them.”
After reading that sentence—so pregnant with meaning, lyricism, mood—I immediately began composing. I imagined the sound of an unearthly resonant and gong-like prepared piano, the ringing of bells, and wind players gently blowing air through their instruments. All of this would support a lyrical and deep-voiced Kublai Khan who is slow-moving and sings with gravitas. I imagined there would be two women, two high sopranos, singing together in harmony: they would be the musical personification of the cities in the novel. And of course, our Italian explorer would be a tenor, light and quick-moving, melismatic, and deft.
As with Calvino’s novel, there are many formally derived components to my opera. The orchestra is split into two halves (left and right) which alternate melodies to create the whole. The left part is associated with Marco Polo, the right with Kublai Khan. The opera is structured as formally as the novel, alternating Polo and Khan’s conversations with Polo’s stories of le città.
To borrow a term from of one of Calvino’s favorite writers, Jorge Luis Borges, Invisible Cities is a garden of forking paths. As the work progresses, you might find yourself wandering back to the same place in Union Station again and again, to find new things happening there each time. In the same way, the same few musical ideas of Invisible Cities are revisited again and again, but from vastly different perspectives. As we grow and evolve, the same objects in our lives can acquire very different meanings. That, above all else, governs what Invisible Cities is about: how our memories change as we get older, how our map of the world gets larger, and how our past is always being changed by our ever-shifting present.