Harlan: I wanted to watch, every morning forever, the world shape itself again out of the drifting fog.
—from Wendell Berry’s Sonata at Payne Hollow
It’s not often that Modern Farmer is the magazine of choice for a preview article about an opera, yet there’s no question but that Payne Hollow, composed by Kentucky-born Shawn Jaeger, was an excellent fit. The opera is based on a verse play by Kentucky poet Wendell Berry about Harlan and Anna Hubbard who, for thirty-five years, lived lightly on the land in their small home along the Ohio River. In keeping with the subject matter of the opera, Berry responded by handwritten letter to Jaeger’s request for permission to use the story and handed Jaeger a completed libretto while they sat together on Berry’s front porch.
Payne Hollow tells a quiet story, limning two quiet lives. The Hubbards lived at once alone and together, alone in their solitary worlds, and together to play Brahms, she on piano, he on violin. There is no powerful dramatic arc. Rather, the story flows along like a river, with occasional turbulence, but also with a steadiness akin to that of companionable lives well lived.
Jaeger, thin as a reed, with a tie to match, introduced the opera amidst sounds of frogs emerging in spring. He’d collected those sounds in springtime, in the Bard College parking lot. From the first moment, then, Jaeger found the simplest of ways to connect the indoor elegance of Bard’s Gehry-designed Fisher Center to a natural world just steps away from where we sat.
The first notes from the orchestra seemed to emanate from the calling frogs, as if rising up from the pit to lead us to the stage, where an uprooted tree dominated the misty ruins of the Hubbards’ lives: a collapsed piano, a broken violin. Two riverboat drifters encountered the ruins, out of which the couple’s ghosts materialized to tell the story of their world.
Jaeger’s intelligently spare music moved artfully with the line of the story, painting in music what the libretto put into words. As the ruins gave way and the lost verdant world of the Hubbards appeared, the voice of a Brahmsian violin sang out. But there was no piano, for Anna (Sara LeMesh) had died, and Harlan (Jeremy Hirsch) was alone. “Alone and not alone, we lived and died,” he sang, and we knew this familiar landing place was provisional. These were ghosts, after all, and they would not stay. So too, all artifice drained away, leaving us where we had begun, in the natural world.
Postscript: I wanted particularly to “bring the news” about Jaeger’s opera, as, to my knowledge, the music is not available in recorded form, though I hope that will change. But I do also want to note that Payne Hollow was paired with a sensitively abridged version (with the Britten estate’s approval) of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. The set’s elegant backdrop, with its raked angles and including a mirrored panel used for both operas, was a brilliant stroke. Using projected images subtly reflected in the mirrored panel and a minimum of well-chosen pieces for the sets, we were transported into two highly individual, evocative worlds. Nicholas Muni was the stage director and production designer.
The standard of excellence achieved by the singers, featuring students of the Bard Conservatory Graduate Vocal Arts Program, was uniformly impressive, with diction so clear I rarely needed to refer to the supertitles, but rather could focus directly on what was happening onstage. Every singer fully inhabited his or her role with expressive grace. I’m loathe to point out anyone particularly, as everyone was marvelous and gave their all, but there are two to whom I will give special mention, both in The Turn of the Screw. As Peter Quint, Vincent Festa’s clarion tone carried Quint’s sinister undercurrent inside it from the very first notes. Sarah Tuttle, as the Governess, conveyed in her lovely voice and subtle acting every aspect of the Governess’s distressed trajectory throughout this chilling tale. We felt thoroughly her powerless despair as Miles lay lifeless in her arms. The standard of excellence among the orchestral musicians was no less fine, both in ensemble work and the numerous solo passages in both operas. We would never have thought this was a student orchestra had we not been told. The fine conductors were Carl Christian Bettendorf (Payne Hollow) and James Bagwell (The Turn of the Screw).
For program notes and other information about the performance, click here.
About Payne Hollow (including brief musical excerpts)
For more about Payne Hollow, click here.
The Cold Pane by Shawn Jaeger, performed by Dawn Upshaw (scroll down to play)
For more about The Cold Pane, settings of five poems by Wendell Berry, click here.
Credits: The photograph of Shawn Jaeger is courtesy of Lucy Dhegrae. The other photographs used in the post may be found here (the Hubbards) and here (Fisher Center). The quotation at the head of the post may be found here.