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Three-way collaboration to result in premiere of concert opera

For a playwright, writing a text is one thing. Writing text to be adapted to a composer's musical score is quite another.

For a composer, writing a piece of music is one thing. Setting music to a playwright's dramatic text is quite another.

For a playwright and a composer collaborating on a large-scale operatic work, finding a conductor and ensemble to perform it is quite another thing still.

It helps, of course, if the playwright, composer and conductor share a common passion for a subject. It also helps if they work down the hall from each other.

Peter Child, associate professor of music, and Alan Brody, chair of the Music and Theater Arts Section and professor of theater, decided three years ago that they would write an opera together. As colleagues in music and theater arts and admirers of each other's work, they pondered various subjects for the libretto, or text, of the work until discovering a subject for which they each had great interest and enthusiasm-the poet Walt Whitman.

It was then that Professor Child remembered an earlier conversation with another of their MIT colleagues, conductor and senior lecturer in music John Oliver.

"By a wonderful coincidence, John had once-from memory-typed several pages of Whitman's poetry for me," Professor Child recalled. "It was in a letter about what kind of a piece I might write for him, and he suggested that I set these particular texts to music. When Alan and I settled on the idea for our piece, I went back to John with the idea and he jumped at it. It was a wonderful three-way fit."

And so "Reckoning Time: A Song of Walt Whitman" was born.

Commissioned by the John Oliver Chorale, the work will have its world premiere by the Chorale and a 60-piece orchestra in a single performance on Thursday, March 16, at 8pm in Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory under the direction of John Oliver. Mr. Oliver, conductor of the MIT Chamber Chorus and MIT Concert Choir, is also known to Boston audiences as the conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

Professor Child calls "Reckoning Time" a `concert opera.' Professor Brody prefers the term `dramatic oratorio.' One thing they agree on, however, is that their inspiration came from issues Whitman raises in his work regarding the relationship between the life and the work of the artist. "The impulse toward this work sprang from our own struggles as contemporary artists to live and work with integrity and coherence, and Whitman is an exalted model," Professor Child said. "We felt that dealing with his life and work would give us a focus for dealing artistically with these issues."

"There's always a question of how the artist can function within the academy," Professor Brody explained. "There are also questions about how the artist can function with integrity in an age of mass media and hype and the necessity of using those tools to have his or her work heard. This is something Whitman was aware of. After all, he wrote most of his best reviews himself, published Leaves of Grass himself, and constantly promoted himself in hucksterish ways while proclaiming his rugged simplicity."

But while Whitman's life has fascinated literary scholars, it has until now been largely untouched by composers, who have generally tended to write music based directly on Whitman's writings.

"Reckoning Time" is also unusual in that while the musical conception is essentially operatic, the work calls for a concert performance without the support of costumes, props or stage lights. This was done in part, Professor Child said, because of what he calls the "conceptual, imaginary nature of the plot and the prominent role that Walt's poetry plays in the libretto."

In addition to the chorus and orchestra, "Reckoning Time" calls for two soloists: a singer depicting Walt Whitman (to be performed by baritone James Maddalena), and an actor depicting Peter Doyle, known, Professor Brody said, as "the most loving of Whitman's many youthful lovers." In what turns out to be another tapping of MIT talent, this latter role will be performed in the Jordan Hall premiere by actor Michael Ouellette, lecturer in theater arts at MIT.

The casting of an actor, who is not expected to be a professional musician, as a principal soloist is another distinctive feature of "Reckoning Time." As Professor Child explains, "Peter Doyle was a mundane character of humble origins with little appreciation for Walt's poetry or exalted ideas. Having him speak rather than sing-especially in contrast with Walt's rich baritone in the piece-embodies that aspect of Pete's character."

The piece imagines Whitman at the point of death, choosing between three ships in which to sail for his departure: one representing his life, one his work and one his legend. In an effort to reconcile these three features of his life, he enlists the help of Doyle. "The entire action takes place between his last inhalation of breath-his last inspiration-and its release," writes Professor Brody in the program notes.

Professor Brody, an award-winning playwright, wrote the libretto for "Reckoning Time" after extensive research into Whitman's life, times, letters and poetry. He then passed the first draft on to Professor Child, who began writing the music. "I felt like a sculptor chipping away at the side of a mountain," said the composer. "For many weeks I worked away at the 40-page libretto that Alan wrote without feeling that I made any progress at all."

And what was one of Professor Brody's biggest challenges in writing text that would later be put to music?

"Writing text to be sung," he says, "and knowing when to shut up and let the music do it. Peter helped me on this," Professor Brody continued wryly. "He told me to shut up a lot."

Tickets for "Reckoning Time: A Song of Walt Whitman" are $25, $18, and $10, with a $5 discount for students, senior citizens and members of the MIT community. Tickets can be purchased by calling 421-9450 or from BosTix or the Jordan Hall Box Office. (Note: MIT discount is not valid at BosTix.) The Council for the Arts at MIT is offering free tickets for 50 MIT students through its Performing Arts Excursion Series. For more information call x3-2372.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 1, 1995.

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