Manitoba Opera’s Werther

A friend who had also lost people in his life to suicide once told me, even one death to suicide is one too many. If one is too much, by now the number of people I’ve seen touched by suicide in one way or another is much too much. You might think spending a night at an opera where an amorous young man takes his life would romanticize suicide, yet it did not. The Manitoba Opera treated suicide as a tragedy with compassion and sensitivity and as a very real problem in our society, using art as a form of awareness. Bob MacLaren alluded to this in his inspired pre-show chat, when he expressed his empathy for Charlotte’s grief, the object of Werther’s love and the reason for his torment. Perhaps it transcends words, but, as Werther lies dying, absorbing the words he had for years longed to hear, his death and the wound it opens in the family who had loved him does not seem romantic but instead filled with ironic tragedy. He had been a man with a future, with talent and prospects. A man who had in prior years been filled with joy and optimism. Who can forget John Tessier as Werther and his mellifluous opening aria where he fills the concert hall with the reflective light of new beginnings and hopeful joy in the first act? And yes, the Manitoba Opera sensitively addressed the issue of mental illness, more so than I’ve seen at other events to promote suicide awareness, definitely without romanticizing it as is often done in popular culture. The opera also collaborated with the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba and provided the orange and yellow ribbons of suicide awareness for all to wear.

Werther is based on the Goethe German novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther). It is sung in French written by the librettists Edouard Blau, Paul Milliet, and Georges Hartmann and composed by Jules Massenet. And beyond the door of the set are what look like the prairie grasses of Manitoba I love so much. German, French, and Manitoba all represented in union to present universal themes.

Looming in the opera’s ambiance is the idea of home. There is Werther who comes to a new home, Tessier equally believable as a young optimist and as an obsessive depressive. Then there is Albert, sung in a rich, clear voice by Keith Phares, who comes and goes from home for periods at a time. The family of sisters, Charlotte, the older sister, sung by Lauren Segal, and Sophie, the younger, sung by Lara Secord-Haid, and their siblings remain at home throughout the opera. Secord-Haid is convincing as a light-hearted young sister with a sweet and innocent voice to match her character. Lauren Segal’s voice is equally sonorous and powerful at the lower and upper registers, and she was also very well suited to the role, not sacrificing the music for drama or the drama for music but sustaining both throughout the opera. As the acts progress, the balance between the singers and the orchestra synchronize into a seamless partnership.

The opera addresses many provocative themes and dichotomies, playing with the idea of light and dark (such as the colour of Werther’s suit versus Albert’s suit in the first act), joy and sorrow (the angelic voices of the children singing Christmas songs and languishing suffering, death, and the ghost of the dead mother and her dying wish for Charlotte to wed Albert never forgotten), duty and passionate abandon, hope and despair (the mood in the first act versus the last act), life and death, young and old. The opera begins with the death of Charlotte and Sophie’s mother and ends with Werther’s death. And as Bob MacLaren pointed out in the pre-show chat, it also begins and ends with the children singing and spiritual symbolism.  As Bob noted, the last word, sung by Werther, is the word, blessed. The music alternates between joyful and brooding, and, if I’m not mistaken, even the language changes, as in the earlier acts Charlotte and Werther address each other in the formal French, vous, and later fall into the language of intimate friends, tu.

Werther addresses other themes such as forgiveness, duty, and innocence. There is a point when Werther and Charlotte (I believe) sing about forgetting everything that has passed. Can you imagine if you could forget the past? Our memories both define us yet also confine us to our own narrative, and the line in the libretto has an almost renewing effect. I was also inspired by Charlotte’s declaration of fearlessness at the end. I’m probably misunderstanding her message, but I wonder about the quality our lives would obtain if we would all approach life and death with fearlessness and honesty. Also in the opera is a discussion of shame, and an obsessiveness that transforms Werther into, as in the words of the opera, a madman.

Werther is a poet in the opera, as opposed to a painter as in the Goethe novel, and the power, pleasure, and despair books and words produce abound in the opera. There is the romantic novel passed around in the beginning. Werther scribbles down notes when inspiration touches him. He and Charlotte reminisce over an Ossian poem he had been translating. A giant bookcase adorns Charlotte and Albert’s house. Werther sends Charlotte letters in his absence over which she languishes. The choice of an overarching theme of the hero as a poet is compatible with the visceral and romantic language of the libretto and music. The opera is extremely engaging and fast-paced, economical like a poem without any extraneous moments.

As is sung in the opera, life is fleeting. Each moment is a fertile opportunity to make some poetry in life, or as in the case of an evening at the opera, to savour the experience of a poetic musical experience, appealing to both the mind and the heart.

And to quote my husband, if you feel like Werther, there are resources available to get help.  As Larry Desrochers introduced the opera, “There’s always hope; you’re not alone.”

I Choose

I choose to part my lips
to open the hollow between my jaws
and let the air fly through my mouth
caressing my vocal folds
– organs of freedom
that allow my voice
to erupt in the primal scream
that is my singular Howl

I choose to sing my stories
both those that weep
and those that ascend the mountain
of my aspirations
harmonizing both
those that cross the bridge of sighs
but also those on paths alit
by the very secret stars I conceived

I choose to sway my body
and dance to the hymns
of my freedoms
of my dreams
of my rights
of my duties to my self
not of the preachings
of those who know me not

I choose to embrace my power —
that in my mind
and in my body
to craft my life
into a work of art
both original, yet flawed
in its humanity
steering to my destined point

I choose to accept my Self
as I am
a unit complete as myself
in all my choices
that colour this journey
paved in hues of every kind
mapping out a life
for my future & for my dreams

I choose to live by my principles
and those that govern me
that give me
my voice
my body
my power
&
my choice

Thanks to the Winnipeg Women’s Health Clinic. I became a professional writer with this piece because of you this year.

La Fleur

Below is a poem I sketched with some ideas in homage to Shakespeare (the idea of two becoming one), Antoine de Saint-Exupery (the idea of the flower), and On the Waterfront (the idea of being a contender).  I hope you enjoy this little poem!

La Fleur

withered outcast
a solitary souvenir
of the bullies’ playground
the Others who had incised
and marked
their twisted signatures of hate
cursing the once vital bark
to a solitary confinement
still seeking a glimmer
to nourish
and redeem the bleakness
pitched inside
the core’s decrepitude
an interior desiccation
hollowed of tears.

tap tap tap
an excruciating issuing
of her sap
the thin sallow remains
that she can proffer
those few to whom she pleas
a beggar she is
for companionship
to forget
for just a moment
her desolation
a drug
to assuage her seared skin

a tree that no longer a tree can be
a bending hunch
under the weight of Boreas
slim drooping branches
pecked by beaks
a home to parasitic thieves
robbing her of all that could have been
a contender in the game
instead of a target for Zeus’s arrows
abandoning her to an electric drought

on the horizon
the rim of the heavens
the tree glimpses beyond her arid ruins,
relics of a youthful neglect,
and spies a forest, a village of trees
lacking the deadened thirst
that fills her malnourished innards
and canvassing the sky with dreams

brave encounters
with amputations and inward probes
Others slicing and burning her branches
fairy embers of beauty
distilled from wounds
that, she wonders, might signal to her sisters
that she still stands
a flame
a gorgeous truth
conceived by her pain

the tree searches her roots
with wonders
at their sprawling tenuous nest
grounding her to her history
and hopes that someday she could produce
a thought, a seed,
to skip along with the Zephyr
a word to commune
and silence the assault of loneliness

but
one day
a Flower dances across the sky
an unforeseen solution
and kisses the tree’s broken bark
before sharing the tree’s soil
their roots intertwine
as they meet each onslaught
of the Others
together
splintering the hurts
and translating bruises
into a symbiosis
where two become one
always facing assailants
but
always
standing
together

Closed String

This poem first appeared on Lake Waban Blue here.

caltech

This picture was taken at the California Institute of Technology where I hung out while I was studying string theory as a graduate student at UCLA.  I recently wrote this poem on a worldsheet.  If you look at the first line of each stanza, it describes a closed string (like a rubber band) sweeping out a worldsheet.  Strings, one-dimensional objects as opposed to point particles, are the smallest components in string theory, a theory which unifies all the forces.  Particles are created by the vibrations of the strings.  You can calculate string interactions using worldsheets, much like Feynman diagrams.  However, they smooth out singularities and remove infinities.

Simple
Life should be
an elegant routine
between the poles of the day

Of one dimension
Paths should be
a directed plan
a vector from the origin to the destination

Encircling a point
We should be
sharing our centers
to all dimensions

With a defined radius
our Family & Friends should be
attached and not abandoned
not to be left as singular

Of points around
our Knowledge should be
traversing from Vermeer to Britten
a mind’s voyage through space-time

Sweeping out a two-dimensional surface
our words should be
painting characters on the canvas
like the elegant solutions to equations

A worldsheet, a dynamic object
our minds should be
as we focus with discipline
and accept the charged currents of change

For a theory of everything
the forces between should be
though we are not
the theory is perfect.

Love, heartache, and 9/11: A review of Tayo Oredein’s His Ph.D. is in Hypocrisy…and other poems about my crappy ex-boyfriend

On Friday I spent six hours out and about in Winnipeg. North. West. South. I spent much of that time on the bus, reading my Wellesley sister Tayo Oredein’s poetry memoir, His Ph.D. is in Hypocrisy…and other poems about my crappy ex-boyfriend.

It was Romeo and Juliet.  It was West Side Story.

But in Tayo’s case, Romeo cheated on his Juliet.

Tayo’s volume reflects a modern vibe and syntax, rife with repetition like the catchy chorus of a song. It reads with the clarity of a memoir, telling the story of her volatile romance with “Steve.” She, an African American Christian woman. He, a pale Muslim man. The poems follow a rhyming rhythm capturing the atmosphere and language of New York City at the turn of the millennium. It buzzes with trips in the fast lane of love, poetry in neon lights possessing its own musicality.

The poems snap an emotional image of falling in love, the butterflies, the excitement, the fireworks. My body might have been traversing all over Winnipeg the other day, but my mind was immersed in the story of the doomed lovers, doomed not by differences in race or religion or fractious families, but by human frailty and hypocrisy.

It’s a story of a lovesick girl who offers her beloved second chances. And third chances. Only to be rebuffed. Reading the bare, raw, honest poems, you feel like Tayo’s best friend as she confides in you her relationship’s journey. This book is for anyone who ever had an obsessive love for the “bad boy.” You know him. The one who, attractive and charming, opens you to new worlds yet who manipulates your heart and whose heart never belonged to you anyway. We rationalize his behavior over and over and over again. Until the relationship cracks apart.

Tayo then depicts the fall-out of her relationship’s demise, vividly expressing her unbearable, devastating heartbreak.

The book ends with the 9/11 tragedy, and Tayo’s wisdom to understand the meaning that her relationship with Steve gave her, how it informed her not to respond to the attacks in hatred, even though she was personally affected by the event (her best friend escaped from the twin towers). Although the book ends with a painful time in American history, there’s a sense of peace and resolution in the final poem. A sense of love, not for Steve, but a love resulting from an enlightened growth to look beyond superficial blame and animosity. As she writes in the preface, “everything, even heartache, happens for a reason.” Her sentiments mirror my own philosophy of living, of striving to leverage setbacks and pain into artistic endeavors and self evolution, seeking silver linings of sorts as much as possible.

Relationships. Connection. Loss. Growth. Isn’t that what life is all about at the end of the day? In Tayo Oredein’s His Ph.D. is in Hypocrisy…and other poems about my crappy ex-boyfriend you will find the essence of all of these elements.