Operagasm Exclusive Review: August 4, 1964
Bringing you the best of 2012! Remember this review by one of Operagasm’s favorite braniac-soprano-beauties? Danielle Buonaiuto reviews this quasi-opera that “[grapples with] political issues and real-life personages, attempts to come to grips with the machinations that caused things to develop as they did, and outlines the resultant emotional responses from various perspectives…” Learn something cool today and read this if you missed it the first time.
Steven Stucky’s concert drama August 4, 1964, on a libretto by Gene Scheer, is firmly in the genre of “operas (or quasi-operas) on the personal aspect of political events”, along with Britten’s War Requiem, Adams’ Nixon in China, Death of Klinghoffer, and Doctor Atomic, and other lesser-known works like Michael Dougherty’s Jackie O. The “concert drama” moniker that Stucky gives his piece simultaneously distinguishes it from the other concert works in this field, namely the War Requiem, and releases it from the so-called constraints of staging; the personal drama unfolds in our minds and the minds of the characters. I’m not completely clear on why Stucky feels it necessary to set his work apart from these others. It grapples similarly with political issues and real-life personages, attempts to come to grips with the machinations that caused things to develop as they did, and outlines the resultant emotional responses from various perspectives. I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing to group this work with its predecessors in that respect; besides, the genre is hardly obsolete, and perhaps becoming even more important. What better way to process the intense political environment in which we live, and some of the tragedies the world has recently faced, but through music, presented as simply as Stucky presents August 4?
But leaving politics and questions of genre aside – more important than the work’s raison-d’être is its musical efficacy. Four singers develop four points of view on two events that converge on the single day named in the title – August 4, 1964. The events are the discovery of the bodies of three civil rights workers on a farm in Mississippi, which is reflected upon by the mothers of two of the boys, and serves to develop an understanding of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s role in the civil rights movement; and the elevated involvement of the US Army in the Vietnam War with the Tonkin Resolution, resulting in the start of bombing on the 4th of August. The latter event is mostly related through transcriptions of Oval Office conferences, which results in percussive, angular, and aggressive music, in stark contrast to the more lush music which accompanies the scenes for the mothers. LBJ is the pivot character, involved in both spheres by dint of being the President who presided over a crucial period in the civil rights struggle, and the decisions made regarding the Vietnam War. Stucky and Scheer have painted a character that is ambiguously heroic.
It is always difficult to speak to a singer’s characterization of their role when the recording is solely audio, but Rod Gilfry’s All-American baritone, complete with Southern drawl, infuses LBJ’s music with life and depth of character. I love Gilfry’s Count and Don Giovanni but I think he really shines in American music; this is no exception. Vale Rideout is Robert McNamara; Stucky’s writing for the Secretary is frantic (a near-shouted “Mr. President! Mr. President!” is his herald at the start of every scene), high in tessitura, and declamatory. He doesn’t have arias, per se – though LBJ’s “arias” are more like extended scenes with a lot of arioso – but figures heavily in about half of the scenes, and Rideout does a wonderful job of changing the ambience with his very first utterance, every time.
The women enjoy music that is slightly less hard on the ears and the brain; not that Stucky’s music is abrasive or difficult – in fact, much reminds me of the best action film scores and is Straussian in breadth – but he has characterized the Vietnam War-era Oval Office as a place I wouldn’t really want to spend much time (in other words, successfully). Indira Mahajan and Kristine Jepson have some beautiful duet music that they execute quite gloriously, and their solo scenes are equally well-sung. I hadn’t heard of either singer (I plead Canadian citizenship), but both are incredibly accomplished at home and abroad. In short, this is an all-star cast.
The work’s commemorative date is now 48 years ago; the commission’s purpose was to commemorate Johnson’s 100th birthday in 2008. I struggle to think of another occasion on which it would be meaningful to stage the work in its entirety; however, some of the choruses, which are moving and evocative, and certainly the monologues which reflect on the struggles of the civil rights movement (for baritone, mezzo, and soprano), hold more universal relevance.
Danielle Buonaiuto is a Canadian musician of Italian heritage, who is gaining a reputation for striking a successful balance in her performance career between thoughtful, original executions of traditional repertoire, and compelling interpretations of new compositions. Last season, she made her debut with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as Knabe 1 in Die Zauberflöte just days before she gave the premiere of Purple King, a song cycle by emerging composer Jeff Zeiders.
Danielle is deeply committed to new music, and frequently premieres the work of contemporary and emerging composers. She recently recorded Purple King. with Zeiders, and creates improvised electronic pieces with composer James Young. Stage premieres include The Children’s Crusade by R. Murray Schafer with Soundstreams Canada and the 2009 Luminato Festival, and Doug Buchanan’s opera for children, Ariel’s Tempest, with the Peabody Opera Workshop.
Before appearing on the operatic stage, Danielle performed extensively in her hometown of Toronto, Ontario in classical and contemporary theatre as well as musical theatre. She continues to make appearances in cabarets and revues in the Toronto area. Concert appearances have included Handel’s Messiah, Vivaldi’s Gloria, Crumb’s Madrigals, and recently, Beethoven’s Mass in C Major op. 86, and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. She is also active in arts education, and worked with Shoestring Opera of Toronto on adaptations of classics for young audiences, and was an Artist Educator with the Canadian Opera Company. This year, she performs Ariel’s Tempest in the Baltimore area, as well as the Folk Songs of Berio with the Peabody Camerata in April.
Danielle is the third-prize winner of the 31st Eckhardt-Gramatté National New Music Competition, a Peabody Career Development Grant and entrance scholarship recipient, and a two-time recipient of the Board of Governors Award from the University of Western Ontario, where she completed her Bachelor of Music. Danielle is currently pursuing a double Master of Music degree in voice and musicology at the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University, where she studies with Phyllis Bryn-Julson and is advised by Dr Susan Forscher Weiss and Dr Richard Giarusso.
Recent engagements include the opening of the HexaCollective season at the Jordan Faye Contemporary Gallery, and a recital tour of Toronto, London, and Stratford, Ontario, with pianist Sandra Mogensen. Danielle has collaborated with Mobtown Modern, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and Opera Vivente in Baltimore, and in Ontario, with Orchestra London, Toronto Chamber Opera, Soundstreams Canada, and Shoestring Opera.
Danielle moved to Baltimore after a year of study and travel in Europe. When she is not travelling, singing or writing, she is usually on her bike, trying a new recipe, or reading in the park.