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A Mythic Spinning Contest
Spins Song

April 2, 2000

By Jerry Kuderna

What makes opera opera? Sarah Michael's Arachne, a chamber opera in one act (three scenes), presented in a concert version at the Montclair Women's Club last Sunday, combined aspects of oratorio, cantata, and opera in a way that made me wonder whether presenting the work in a full staged version would have added to its operaness. Whatever you call it, Michael's setting of the myth of the transformation of a proud and talented girl, Arachne, into a spider by the goddess Athena made for an evening of lovely vocal and instrumental music that fulfilled the promise of being "accessible" without becoming cloying.

The main action of this story about weaving and spinning is a competition to see who can do it better: Athena (sung by Susan Rode Morris), the Goddess of weaving, often described as the Goddess of crafts and wisdom, or Arachne (sung by Suzanne Elder Wallace). We got jealousy, we got rivalry -- sounds like promising material for an opera.

Each of the five secondary characters (three Nymphs and two mortals) had almost as much to say as the leads. Michael's score presents the full range of female vocal solo and part singing variations, with the ensemble adding much that was musically satisfying. The opening chorus of the Nymphs (who were color-coded in yellow, magenta, and cyan) started out as gossip and chatter, a parody of florid arias, that showed that Michael knows (and loves) the voice. Terry Alvord, Caroline Jou, and Jennifer Ashworth sang their amoroso thirds and sixths in a suitably self-satisfied manner.

The two mortal women, Martha and Mona, admit to liking Arachne's stuff. They offer wordy if not quite worldly wisdom to tell us what is going to happen to poor Arachne if she goes on making her gorgeous threads and charging high prices for them--and showing no respect for the gift of the Goddess. Beautifully sung by Laurie Amat and Brenda Bonhomme, their parts allowed for personal expression that was conveyed convincingly.

Michael reflects the story in the way she spins out her lyric phrases and weaves a musical accompaniment for strings, harp, and clarinet, ably conducted by Mary Chun. The instrumental ensemble, always admirably transparent, provided support and commentary much in the manner of Satie's Socrate. There was no credit given for the adaptation of the text. I assume it was also done by Michael. I like the way she set the lyrics as poetry, utilizing rhyme and repetition within phrases effectively.

The music itself, while skillfully crafted, was too intent on being pleasing to generate much conflict. Poetic and discreet, with many deft touches, it maintained its distance without entering the drama. It seems to mirror the dilemma of Arachne, who claims that all she wants is to go on practicing her craft and to get a little respect for it. She feels she created her art without any outside help. Athena counters that good fortune is bestowed by none other than the Gods. There is something of the "tempest in a teapot" when Arachne becomes "furious" at this and the music goes into the minor for what seems like the first time.

In all fairness to Arachne, it would have been difficult for anyone to be furious at such a regal and compassionate presence as Rode Morris as the lovely Athena. She conveyed conciliation in her lyrical sustained phrasing. Her regal manner distanced her from conflict rather than showing outrage at the mortal's presumption.

For the climax of the work, the neighbor women comment on the content of Athena's tapestry and the power of the Gods to punish the disrespect of mortals. Politely, in turn, the airy Nymphs gossip about Arachne's in-your-face depiction of the "amorous adventures" of Zeus (Athena's father), that is, his seductions and rape of mortals! This device took all the possibility of confrontation or passionate dialog from our two protagonists.

Whether we read here the dark tale of the artist who becomes seduced by her power and credits herself rather than inspiration, or a cultural epoch from the world of the gods to a world focused on humans, or simply a tale of the many roles of women, where the daughter challenges the (benevolent) power of the mother, our sympathies are with Arachne.

The final scene (which in the myth has Arachne, overcome by shame, hanging herself) closes as Athena takes pity on Arachne, answering her wish to continue her life and work by transforming her into a spider. Lots of musical possibilities there, but of a darker character than Michael conceived. Still, opera is love and death. We got mostly love, the love of singing.

(Jerry Kuderna is a pianist who teaches at Diablo Valley College and is a host (with Sarah Cahill) of the Berkeley TV program, Stop, Look, and Listen.)

©2000 Jerry Kuderna, all rights reserved