Long Beach Opera - "Pierrot lunaire"
Soprano Kiera Duffy with members of dance company Ate9 and Wild Up conducted by Jenny Wong in Long Beach Opera’s production of Pierrot lunaire | Credit: Jordan Geiger

Dramatically provocative, emotionally disturbing, and consistently atonal — not the ingredients you usually associate with a midsummer concert under the stars. But this was a Long Beach Opera event, and the company has rarely felt obliged to follow tradition.

Presented Aug. 14 and 15 at the outdoor Ford Amphitheater (across the canyon from the Hollywood Bowl and run by the Los Angeles Philharmonic), it featured a challenging operatic double bill that skillfully forged a bridge between Arnold Schoenberg’s 1912 revolutionary tour de force for solo soprano, Pierrot lunaire, and Kate Soper’s Voices from the Killing Jar (2012), in which a succession of women drawn from history, opera, and literature take back the role of doomed heroine from male authors. The question they all share (in varying degrees of philosophical rumination, droll sophistication, petulant foot-stomping, and all-out madness) is, WTF? Why? Why me? Why women?

Long Beach Opera - "Pierrot lunaire"
Kiera Duffy in Long Beach Opera’s production of Pierrot lunaire | Credit: Jordan Geiger

The glittering stars of the evening were a pair of remarkable sopranos. Kiera Duffy sang/spoke the role of the hapless moonstruck clown, Pierrot, accompanied by nine members of the Ate9 dance company directed and choreographed by Danielle Agami. Then, after a transformative set change, Laurel Irene offered an emotionally wrenching, vocally kaleidoscopic performance as the eight ladies in Soper’s Killing Jar.

The scores were conducted by Jenny Wong and performed by seven members of the Los Angeles-based ensemble, wild Up: Mona Tian (violin), Mia Barcia-Colombo (cello). Brian Walsh (clarinet and saxophone), Isabel Lepanto Gleicher (flute), Derek Tywoniuk (percussion), Thomas Kotcheff (piano), and David Saldaña (electronics).   

By 1912, Arnold Schoenberg, who had begun his career as a major proponent of hyper-chromaticism à la Wagner and Mahler, was looking for a palate-cleansing direction, a new musical vocabulary he described as “the emancipation of dissonance.” The first masterpiece to result from his quest was Pierrot lunaire (“Pierrot in the moonlight”) a song cycle setting 21 poems by the Belgian symbolist writer Albert Giraud, in which a somewhat lunatic version of the commedia dell’arte clown goes from love’s inspiration to madness to nostalgia. It was commissioned by a former cabaret actress, Albertine Zehme, and Schoenberg, accordingly, cast the poems in a form of musical declamation between speech and song.

Long Beach Opera’s production, designed by Carlos Mosquera, featured the instrumentalists and Wong on a rectangular platform that could be manually rotated with the piano elevated on a separate level of the Ford stage.

Duffy played the role more as femme fatale than hapless clown. Heavily amplified (as were the instruments), she navigated and illuminated the complexities of Schoenberg’s score with silvery ease. Meanwhile the choreography by Agami swirled and lurched all around her. To me, the dancers seemed more of a distraction than an enhancement. The last image, however, was impressive, as the dancers, seated in a row of chairs in silhouette, struck leg thrusting poses that at least to me evoked Berlin denizens of Bob Fosse’s choreography for Cabaret.

Long Beach Opera - "Pierrot lunaire"
Members of dance company Ate9 in Long Beach Opera’s production of Pierrot lunaire | Credit: Jordan Geiger

Kate Soper’s Voices from the Killing Jar is unquestionably linked to Pierrot dramatically and musically, particularly in their reliance on a soprano of immense vocal dexterity and theatrical presence to focus the action.

Soper’s use of instrumentation, like Schoenberg’s, is spare and keen-edged, composed for a sextet of players (plus electronics) that perform alternately on flute, piccolo, bass flute, B-flat clarinet, tenor saxophone, prepared piano, recorder, percussion, violin and B-flat trumpet.

The piece is episodic, composed in eight sections: “Prelude: May Kasahara”; “Isabel Archer: My Last Duchess”; “Palilalia: Iphigenia”; “Midnight’s Tolling: Lucile Duplessis”; “Mad Scene: Emma Bovary”; “Interlude: Asta Solilja”; “The Owl and the Wren: Lady Macduff”; and “Her Voice is Full of Money (A Death Song): Daisy Buchanan.”

Laurel Irene in Long Beach Opera’s Voices From the Killing Jar | Credit: Jordan Geiger
Laurel Irene in Long Beach Opera’s production of Voices From the Killing Jar | Credit: Jordan Geiger

Soper’s heroines are condemned to suffer the slow suffocation of male social stereotyping, blood sacrifice, political madness, operatic madness, and in the case of Daisy Buchanan (from The Great Gatsby), death by sophisticated overindulgence. The pin-point direction by Zoe Aja Moore was accentuated by the stage-within-a-stage design by Zoe Aja Moore and the couture costuming by Christopher Kuhl.

Long Beach Opera - "Pierrot lunaire"
Laurel Irene in Long Beach Opera’s production of Voices From the Killing Jar | Credit: Jordan Geiger

Soper’s ability to imbue each of the “chapters” with its own defining musical vocabulary is remarkable. The work begins in a style firmly rooted in contemporary modernism based on tightly fitted note clusters, fixed tones (in the percussion), overtones, and microtones (in the prepared piano), all of which are mirrored in the vocal line. Thoughts, both mental and musical, tend to pose questions that are left unresolved. Soper then adds another layer with the electronics, both as atmosphere and prerecorded recitation that turn into dreamlike wisps or are obscured by static. There isn’t a hint of minimalist influence. The only pulse to be heard is the thump of Lucile Duplessis’s footfalls as she’s marched to the guillotine.

Off-kilter harmonies give a sense of ancient ritual to the sacrifice of Iphigenia. “The Owl and the Wren” becomes a jaunty madrigal. In a monologue of confused identity, Lucile Duplessis tries to fathom how she became a hapless victim of the French Revolution. But it is in the throes of Emma Bovary’s “Mad Scene” that Soper and Laurel Irene, pull out all the stops. The result is a crazed, pyrotechnical mash-up of operatic references that ping-pong between Violetta’s frenzied gaiety and Donna Anna pursued by a predatory Don Giovanni (sung by baritone, Abdiel Gonzalez).

But is their madness (in the hands of male composers) a reflection of women as helpless victims or might their madness be considered the ultimate act of revolutionary liberation? That’s certainly the case Sylvia Plath makes in her novel, The Bell Jar, where madness offers a form of release and inroad to clarity.