Pittsburgh Opera's next world premiere is a whodunnit scored like a film soundtrack

By Jeremy Reynolds

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


Pittsburgh Opera's next offering is a sort of operatic whodunit, a probing, investigatory piece in which the music directly amplifies the action onstage.


Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa's "In a Grove" details multiple witness accounts of a grizzly murder as told to a police commissioner. It's an epistemological meditation on the nature of knowledge and truth that poses a simple question: How do we know what we know?


"People fully believe that they know the truth, but their versions of the truth are often strongly and directly opposed to one another," said Brooklyn-based composer Christopher Cerrone, who worked with librettist Stephanie Fleischmann to adapt the text into an opera. Cerrone is also the composer of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated, site-specific opera "Invisible Cities," which premiered in Union Station in Los Angeles in 2013 and took the opera world by storm.


"In the opera, no one knows the whole story except the audience," he said.


Pittsburgh's performances of "In a Grove," which begin Saturday at the opera's headquarters in the Strip District, mark the world premiere.


The opera unfolds as a set of three tales, three versions of the same murder narrated by passersby, with four singers each playing two characters backed by a small instrumental ensemble with electronics. All of the musicians will be amplified so that their playing can be enhanced and manipulated.


He said listeners will hear a melody that he said he designed to stick with them long after the performance as it repeats often in different forms, sort of like a main theme.


"For a long time, the opera world generally looked down on repetition as being vulgar,” he said, “and I think this is going away."


Why adapt this story as an opera versus a theatrical play?


"I say that about 90 percent of operas really shouldn't be operas," said Cerrone, who traces his musical lineage to Debussy, Ravel, Bartok and Britten. "Usually the music obfuscates and confuses. My main critique of contemporary opera is that there's no internal memory."


In other words, if the music isn't aiding the narrative drama clearly, it can do more harm than good. Cerrone explained that because "In a Grove" is focused on exploring questions of memory and truth, he treats the music similarly, with lots of repetition and subtle differences from one retelling to the next.


"In one scene the strings are playing driving tremolos, but when it comes back it’s the same musical material in piano and percussion," he explained. "Or for example, some voices are processed with reverb, as an echo is like an imperfect memory of a sound. We played with the timing of the reverb to reflect this."


He also uses a frequency amplitude effect in a scene to make clear that a character who was hit in the head with a rock is woozy.


"About 99 times out of 100 I'm trying for a one-to-one correlation between music and action."

If that sounds suspiciously like film music, there's good reason. In the 20th century, film music was born out of the operatic tradition, with the music designed to intensify viewers' emotional response to the drama onscreen. This is key.


"It was very appealing to me to have this investigatory work at this time when we're all thinking about truth and knowledge," Cerrone said. "As we worked on this, it ultimately became more of an emotional whodunnit than a literal whodunnit."


“In a Grove” stars four singers in the Pittsburgh Resident Artist program, a two-year residency program for early career artists. Mary Birnbaum is the director.


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