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It is a question many people asked after Sept. 11, 2001: Is there a direction and meaning in lives beyond the individual’s own will? Writer Thornton Wilder posited that question nearly 76 years ago through his novel "The Bridge of San Luis Rey."

This month, Paula Kimper, composer of "Patience and Sarah" - a gently lyrical chamber opera that was a highlight of the 1998 Lincoln Center Festival - will present an operatic version of Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, inspired, in part, by the events of 9-11.

The production, part of American Opera Projects’ Opera America Showcase, will be staged on March 28 at A.R.T./NY Space, 138 South Oxford St. in Fort Greene.

The composer writes in a program note, "[This story] could be anywhere, anytime, any catastrophe; it could be New York City in September 2001."

The opera, like Wilder’s novel, shows five characters, complete strangers who have one thing in common: they are killed in the collapse of a Peruvian bridge in 1714. The strands of their lives are captured with precision and immediacy, rendering them indelibly three-dimensional.

Charles Jarden, executive director of American Opera Projects, also sees the parallels to 9-11.

"The plot allows us to think about those events, especially because of how Wilder wrote the novel," Jarden told GO Brooklyn. "By the time those five people get to the bridge, we know them quite intimately. Such a parallel [to 9-11] brings up a question: is tragedy random or is it part of a grand plan?

"Like all artists, Paula was deeply affected by that day."

"The Bridge" has been a highly cherished project for the company from the beginning.

"We’ve been developing this opera with Paula for three or four years," said Jarden. "She’s a joy to work with.

"It’s a very complex work," Jarden said. "Wilder’s novel has extremely complicated subject matter, and so it’s difficult for an opera to capture his tone, which is slightly ironic. But Paula has managed to get that into the music by writing as she normally writes - staying simple, direct and clear."

That musical clarity was strikingly evident in "Patience and Sarah," and in this production, Kimper has even surpassed that, Jarden said.

"She’s grown musically since ’Patience and Sarah,’ but everything she composes is singer-friendly," he explains. "Paula has a natural lyric gift, which makes everything flow simply and with no clutter."

Since this performance is part of American Opera Projects’ "preview" series, it will be a piano version of the work: just singers, the score and the piano.

Jarden explained the effect of hearing the opera this way, without ornamental orchestration: "When Paula composes an opera, she starts with a piano score, which is smart in a practical way, because you can show off its dramatic effectiveness before adding the orchestral colors. In a workshop situation like this, there’s no staging, just purely music. It’s admittedly bare-bones, but you are able to concentrate more directly on the heart of the drama through the music."

Mother and artist

Also on the American Opera Projects schedule this spring is a full-scale production of "Marina: A Captive Spirit," a new, one-act chamber opera by Ditmars Park resident Deborah Drattel, whose "Lilith" premiered at the New York City Opera two years ago.

"We’ve engaged director Anne Bogart and a lot of the same production and musical team that worked on ’Lilith,’ including soprano Lauren Flanigan," Jarden said of "Marina," which runs May 1-4 in Manhattan.

"Marina" is based on the life and work of the 20th-century Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, and it was no coincidence that Drattel became fascinated by her life and work.

"Both Deborah and [librettist] Annie Finch seemed to hit on the same idea at the same time," said Jarden. "Deborah had researched Russian history because she’s been working on her ’Nicholas and Alexandra’ opera that was commissioned by the Los Angeles Opera, and she and Annie decided to collaborate on three one-act chamber operas about mothers who contend with their creative versus maternal instincts.

"’How can one be a free-spirited, creative individual and also be a caring mother?’ is what they seem to be asking. Marina was a single mother with four children during a difficult time: famine, no food, no money. Deborah has four children as well and a working husband. So there may be echoes of Deborah in there somewhere."

Staging "Marina" at the new, 99-seat DR2 Theater in Union Square is also no accident.

"This opera is about confinement, the small spaces Russian people had to live in at that time," said Jarden. "It’s designed to take place on one stage, so the orchestra and the nine-member cast are up there together, adding to the cramped feel, and the intimate theater space will certainly add to this confinement theme."


American Opera Projects presents Paula Kimper’s "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," on March 28 at 7 pm at the A.R.T./NY Space, 138 South Oxford St. between Atlantic Avenue and Hanson Place in Fort Greene; and "Marina: A Captive Spirit," a staged production of a chamber opera by Deborah Drattel, May 1-4 at the DR2 Theatre, 103 East 15th St. in Manhattan. For more information, call (718) 398-4024 or go to on the Web.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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