Philadelphia composer Andrea Clearfield knows to warn her downstairs neighbors when her opera is scheduled to erupt.
“I’m writing a destruction scene. Beware!”
Or, “I’m singing through the entire opera for the cast.”
What’s coming out of her Sydenham Street studio can be a surprise even to her.
The commotion-causing opera is Mila, Great Sorcerer: It will have a semi-staged presentation Jan. 12-13 in New York City’s Prototype Festival and dramatizes a Tibetan Buddhist parable of annihilation and enlightenment.
The more demonic sections have music she describes as “macabre circus … dark tango … a nod to the Mummers strut.” played by Western orchestra augmented with horns, bowls, and bells from Nepal.
Yet the story — about a young man who acquires dark powers for revenge and is later transformed into one of the most venerated teachers in Tibetan Buddhism — still asked for something more.
Clearfield wanted sounds she had never heard, from an ethereal tricked-out music box to a drone that suggests something primeval welling up from the center of the Earth. Instrument maker David Kontak created seven new instruments to produce them.
“I was looking for a third world,” Clearfield said in her Philadelphia studio, “a world that is not electronic, not acoustic, blends the voices and instruments, is East and West, and is capable of transmitting this story of ultimate transformation.”
An opera meant to be
Opera is new to 58-year-old Clearfield, who has a body of other large works behind her, including her Women of Valor cantata, the choral work Golem Psalms, and several pieces based on two trips to northern Nepal, where she recorded some 120 indigenous songs with ancient Tibetan roots that were in danger of dying out.
She had planned another opera with Vulcan Lyric, a small and now-defunct Philadelphia company devoted to new work. Based on the Czech sci-fi play Rossum’s Universal Robots,that work has since morphed into a multimedia oratorio to be done in future seasons by the Mendelssohn Club.
In contrast, Mila, Great Sorcerer seems meant to be.
Clearfield had been thinking about the subject matter for a while when by chance she met playwright Jean-Claude Van Itallie, who had adapted The Tibetan Book of the Dead for the stage and who had already written a libretto about Mila with Lois Walden.
Even better, the libretto was commissioned by a pair of producers who originally considered a film about Mila but concluded opera would be a better way to tell the story.
“I’m a composer who met the writer who had written the libretto to the opera I wanted to write,” Clearfield said. “How often does that conversation happen?”
It seems too coincidental to be true. “You choose some moments in your life,” said co-commissioner (and architect) Gene Kaufman, “and some moments choose you.”
Kaufman, who is producing the opera with his wife, Terry Eder, finds that ancient religious mythology contains “the accumulated wisdom of centuries to which modern life is only a retelling. We just need to listen.”
Mila the listener, Mila the poet
Interestingly, much Mila iconography shows him with hand cupped to his ear: Listening was a major element of his enlightenment.
Known more formally as Milarepa, the title character of Clearfield’s opera wasn’t just a Buddhist paragon of redemption. He was also a bard who wrote thousands of songs.
His description of a nine-day snowstorm reveals the soul of a poet: “The big flakes … fell like thick layers of wool, like birds in flight that plummet down. The small flakes … fell like tiny wheels, like bees flying around.”
The opera’s destruction scenes employ considerable percussion, of course. But during Clearfield’s residency at the Yaddo artist colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., she often asked other Yaddo artists what enlightenment sounds like to them. The artist/author/musician/documentarian Laurie Anderson replied, “The resonance [that is] left in the room.”
Silence figured into the score, which was originally orchestrated for a large grand-opera ensemble, but which seemed to find its more natural size in something smaller, though not in the typical chamber orchestra instrumentation.
“As much as I love Western classical music, there are only so many sounds you can wring out of a violin and piano,” said Mila instrument maker Kontak, “which is why I exist to create something more otherworldly.”
Opera via Zoom
However glacial the usual pace of opera development is, this one has suddenly found itself in the fast lane. Sets, costumes, video, and casting have come together over only the last four months. The final assemblage will happen in a matter of days.
With cast and creative team in far-flung locations, Clearfield’s late-December sing-through of the piece from her Philadelphia studio was transmitted on Zoom (this year’s Skype).
The director is Kevin Newbury, who has semi-staged works from Salome to Bernstein’s Mass for the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Kimmel Center.
Singers will be “on book” (their roles not totally memorized), with up-and-coming tenor Aaron Blake in the title role (he will later sing Dialogues Des Carmelites at the Metropolitan Opera under Yannick Nezet-Seguin). The long-acclaimed singing actress Lauren Flanigan is Mila’s mother.
Architect Kaufman designed the sets. The chorus, which often plays bratty, taunting villagers, is the New York Virtuoso Singers.
The venue is one of New York’s most sophisticated, the 595-seat Gerald W. Lynch Theater on West 59th Street near Lincoln Center (which often produces works there).
As much as Clearfield and her collaborators have immersed themselves in Tibetan culture, the greatest impact on the opera itself may not be religious or even philosophical, but elemental.
“You feel the aliveness of everything [in Nepal]. Even in the rocks,” she said. “You also feel the fact that death is in your face. There was also the influence of pre-Buddhist shaman religion, which is always reminding you to stay awake. Stay awake to your life — and move forward.”