Shawn Jaeger’s Payne Hollow

Anna and Harlan Hubbard

Anna and Harlan Hubbard

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.

Shawn Jaeger

Shawn Jaeger

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.

Bard College Fisher Center

Bard College Fisher Center

Listening List

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.

On Spotify: Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw 


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.

11 thoughts on “Shawn Jaeger’s Payne Hollow

  1. David N

    I love the sound of Payne Hollow, so to speak, and can’t wait to hear it. Frogs croaking at Bard bring it all back to me – o to be by the Hudson now that spring is here (though we’re doing pretty well by the much less dramatic Thames). Of course you get the bassoon croaking a frog by the lake in the summer afternoon scene of The Turn of the Screw.

    And now you evoke beautifully why the two operas would be such a perfect fit. But I’m so intrigued as to what was cut in the Britten and why. Did they find a treble for Miles or was he played by a girl?

    My salute to the splendid creativity that seems to be ongoing at Bard – an aspect we never got a chance to see in the summer festivals of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Any idea who the chosen composer is to be this year? Richard Strauss, perchance?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Ah, stalwart friend! Statistics indicate that there has been a lot of interest in this post, but you’re the only one (so far) to chime in, and I’m so glad you did. There is definitely a lot of creativity and talent coming out of Bard–and to think the Conservatory was only founded in 2005!

      You are exactly right about why the operas were paired, and another aspect, of course, is Upshaw’s laudable ongoing commitment to support of new works. I hope there will be more opportunities to hear this opera–not to mention more new works by Jaeger. There’s a lot about his opera I couldn’t securely write about on a single hearing. I was impressed by his use of orchestration, signaling changes of mood and affect from scene to scene with a deft economy of means. Another thing I enjoyed was hearing subtle hints of Appalachian folk music within the work. Though it may not be his chosen direction, I’d love to hear a bit more of that integrated, where appropriate, into his work. Overall, he seemed most in the line of Berg to me, offering just enough sense of tonality to allow us to keep our bearings. I think he’s pursuing an interesting musical path, and I look forward to hearing more from him.

      Miles was played by Lucy Fitz Gibbon, who did fine, convincing work in the role. As to the edits, Bard noted several things in the program notes, including maintaining a balanced program and student needs. In making judgements about what to edit, Bard noted that, as no scene changes were required, and part of the purpose served by the variations related to that, some variations were cut, in addition to some “minor cuts in a few scenes.” I would have loved to hear the whole opera live, of course, but the abridged version was intelligently done.

      As for Bard’s Summerfest, alas, not Strauss. This year is Schubert. I’m sure it will be a fine program, as it always is.

  2. David N

    Hmm. No greater genius than Schubert; wouldn’t it be wonderful if they drafted in students for a complete cycle of the piano sonatas, among whic, as my idol Leonskaja proved, there isn’t an unoriginal one. But I suspect Leon Botstein may want to champion an opera…

    Susie’s production also had a totally convincing girlasboy Miles. Her real problem was finding a tenor up to singing Quint, which is why she sang the role of Quint (though we both got mileage on Woman’s Hour).

  3. The Solitary Walker

    I knew nothing about the music, but I enjoyed your description of it very much.

    That arresting Fisher Center building reminded me strongly of my visit to Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao a few years ago.

      1. David N

        Have to say that much as I love the outside of Gehry’s Bard concert hall, and how it looks great in every light, the inside struck me when I was there as cold, dull, even a little ordinary – too much, then, about surface and not about the whole.

  4. shoreacres

    There’s no mistaking a Gehry building, is there? I still have a trip to his Ohr-O’Keefe Museum in Biloxi on my “to-do” list, after having been introduced to his work by a Canadian blogger. I’m glad the Ohr-O’Keefe still is open. They had a bit of a rocky go of it, post-Ike. Citizens trying to rebuild weren’t so enamoured of what they called “the four beer cans” laying about, waiting to be turned into a museum.

    I like Berry’s work very much. I knew him first as an essayist on agrarian issues and simplicity of life. I found his poetry perhaps two years ago. Every time I read his “Manifesto,” I have to quell a bit of an aux barricades feeling, but even in “Manifesto”, there is the draining of artifice you so rightly point to. In the end, with Berry, the natural world always has its say.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: There seem to be quite a few Gehry buildings dotted about. There’s one at the University of Iowa, too. Right on the river, but from what I can tell from a brief check, it seems to have made it through the terrible floods of a few years back. Interesting Manifesto–not sure I can subscribe to the whole of it, but here’s one of many passages I can definitely endorse (even if I don’t follow through!):

      So, friends, every day do something
      that won’t compute.

  5. angela

    Well, as everyone else has confirmed, one cannot miss a Gehry! Quite unusual, this one, for those roof scapes seem almost comical – I imagine a young dutch girl whose oversized bonnet is about ready to take flight with her…
    This opera sounds delightful – I am rather smitten with the more contemporary takes (DMMO offers Dead Man Walking as a choice this summer!) Listening to the links of Upshaw are rather curious, a bit like those clips from one of your posts last year regarding vocal stylings that were most distinct(forgive, I cannot remember).
    Your writing makes exploring this work a pleasure.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      angela: I love your “dutch girl bonnet” analogy, and yes, it does look as if it could take flight, doesn’t it? I did think Jaeger’s choice of subject matter was particularly appealing, and of course to have Berry’s own libretto was quite a coup. So pleased you enjoyed the post!

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