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Gregory Spears, Paul's Case: Soloists, Chorus, Piano, Andrew M. Kurtz (conductor), Center City Opera Theater (conNEXTions 2009: The Next Generation of Opera in conjunction with the Philadelphia Fringe Festival), St. Stephen’s Theater, Philadelphia, 13.9.2009 (JE)

General and Artistic Director, Conductor: Andrew M. Kurtz
Stage Director: Albert Innaurato
Costume Designer: Amy Chmielewski
Lighting Designer: J. Dominic Chacon
Production Stage Manager: Farin R. Loeb
Principal Coach and Pianist: Jody Schum

Paul: Siddhartha Misra
Principal: Branch Fields
History Teacher, Opera Soprano 1 and Maid 1: Chloe Moore
Drawing Teacher, Opera Soprano 2 and Maid 2: Toni Marie Palmertree
English Teacher and Maid 3: Hai-Ting Chinn
Father: Jean Bernard Cerin
Yale Freshman: Kyle Bielfield

Paul faces the crossroads

If Americans think about Pittsburgh, it may be to muse upon wealth and might produced there by ruthless and exploitative 19th century industrialization that not only wrested raw materials from the earth but wrecked havoc on the souls of men. We may envision a despoiled environment, the belching pollution of the Carnegie Steel Company, labor struggles such as the Homestead Strike. Or we may acknowledge the unlikely byproduct: civic beneficence, a gush of libraries, concert halls, museums, and universities. While today Pittsburgh is a glittering post-industrial city, its history exemplifies a profound American dynamic—exploitation and munificence—a history that lives symbolically in each restless American.  It might even be called one’s inner Pittsburgh—a place we cannot leave, but from which we seek never to return.

Pittsburgh of 1906 is the setting for Gregory Spears’s mesmerizing new chamber opera, Paul’s Case. The libretto by the composer and playwright Kathryn Walat deftly adapts Willa Cather’s short story, a narrative of the demise of a high-school-aged sensualist. Dandified, ambiguous, disturbingly ill-at-ease in his lower-middle-class milieu, Paul feels constricted by his teachers and their lessons, by his family and its conventions, by the go-getting and grime of Pittsburgh. His sensitive soul is symbolized by the red carnation he wears at great offense to his teachers. Paul himself blooms only in his job as an usher at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Hall, his wishful spirit freed by the gilding and finery, paintings and performances.

Wrested from this dreamy refuge by his father (at his school principal’s suggestion) and sent to work as a clerk, Paul’s delicate nature can no longer be denied. He steals his employer’s deposits and absconds to New York City, determined to flower if but briefly in the rented splendor of the Waldorf Astoria. He spends a night on the town, sharing a “champagne friendship” with a Yale freshman. The next day he reads the Pittsburgh newspapers’ sensational accounts of his crime, and learns that his father has repaid the stolen money and is traveling to New York to redeem him. Having anticipated the inevitability of this course of events, Paul takes his own life. His last thoughts, images of vast and untouched nature that recall the paintings on the walls of Carnegie Hall, Pittsburgh, blend reverie with regret.

The libretto conveys this story clearly, but not simply. Consecutive actions are presented simultaneously; two scenes are interpolated into Cather’s story, one, an opera within the opera, sets an ardent love poem by Stephen Crane that connects sentiments expressed by Paul, his teacher, and his father; soloists briefly combine to form duets, quartets, or choruses, which allows the yearning of isolated characters to touch gently; and words and phrases are repeated insistently, which refracts their meaning. A recurring phrase, for instance, the principal asking “why is it that you are here Paul” is transformed from straightforward question, to challenge, to metaphysical speculation. In this way unadorned phrases amplify tragic ironies and portents. The clipped language suits the composer’s post-minimalist aesthetic and lets the music add complexity though rhythms, harmonies, and textures that associate the industrial life of Pittsburgh with the inner life of the characters.

Mr. Spears’s hauntingly paradoxical music—feral and refined, unsettled and serene—is especially electrifying during statements of anticipation and regret. The repeated harmonies of the music create a sense of symmetry between the two acts of the opera and with ever-increasing emotional complexity propel the drama to its inevitable conclusion.  The symmetry, articulated by dissonances accumulated for various theatrical purposes, breaches emotional barriers with cascades of consonance. The dissonance obscures tonality and irony so the music feels both new and old. Or more precisely, the music sometimes sounds misremembered, the peculiar way music may be misshaped by memory: phrases subtly askew, grace notes unrelenting, harmony distilled into a longing for the ingenuousness of Strauss and Mahler.

The composer’s attentiveness to symmetry and dissonance resolves an inherent tension between minimalism and neo-romanticism that bedevils post-minimalist opera. Minimalist opera unfolds continuously, using tediousness to generate moments of transcendence, while neo-romantic opera unfolds discontinuously, using harmonic suspense and resolution to convey emotion. When these two stylistic influences are combined their respective pace and scale conflict, tediousness gives way to melodic moments languishing apart from meaningful continuity. Post-minimalist operas often feel immobilized: Massenet’s Thais tearing through Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. But Mr. Spears coils minimalist motifs sufficiently tightly so that they spring naturally and necessarily into neo-romantic idioms.

The opera is not without flaw: the dissonance can seem like wrong notes (for instance, near the beginning of Act 1, Scene II); literal sound effects, like a recorded train whistle, break the music’s spell (although that may be the point); and some aspects of Act 2, including the interlude, might be refined. But the first public performance of the entire opera, which is not yet orchestrated, demonstrates that this is a beautiful, heartrending work that will come across forcefully in a properly scaled house. Developed by the vital New York City-based American Opera Projects, and presented in Philadelphia with dedication and integrity by Center City Opera Theater, which, with reasonable staging and cast—mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn was outstanding—surmounted the challenges endemic to the production of new opera.

Jeffrey Edelstein 

Jeffrey Edelstein is Director of New Music at Crane Arts Center ( in Philadelphia.  

Photo credit: Matthu Placek, courtesy American Opera Projects