Death will find us all in the end, but can even death be an illusion? That’s the question that Moments of Mortality, three one-act operas by Northwestern University Opera Theater, attempted to answer in a short two hours these past two weekends.
This was director Joachim Schamberger’s first production at Northwestern as an artist-in-residence. He is internationally acclaimed as a director of opera, and also works as a stage director and video designer. His staging of three one-act operas, Moments of Mortality, ran on Nov. 10, 12, 17 and 19 at the Ryan Opera Theatre.
Rather than what students might envision as your typical, boring opera (a four-hour lament on love in a foreign language), Moments of Mortality dealt with the universal theme of the unpredictability of death in three one-act operas. If a full-length opera is like a book, then a one-act is like a chapter.
“I find that one-acts ... can contain a lot in a short amount of time, which makes it easier to pair them with other shows,” said first year voice and opera graduate student Kyle Jensen, who played Death.
Two of the three one-acts were in English and one was in French, but subtitles were displayed for the audience from a projection. These subtitles, along with various projections of the sea or a house, appeared on two floor-to-ceiling white panels and were the only set pieces in the opera. This simplicity, along with the singing, which was relatively easy to understand, really made Moments of Mortality an ideal getaway into the world of opera.
The music alone brought out chills. Even if you didn’t want to focus on the plot, the tearful laments of the female characters and the eerie harmonies of the chorus truly conveyed the looming presence of death.
“I find the music is fantastic. It’s the female chorus of course that brings this lovely mystery and magic to the whole thing,” said Jensen. “It transcends everyone into this other world.”
The themes in the one-acts were relatively universal. The first one-act, Riders to the Sea by Ralph Vaughan Williams, told the tale of an older woman who lost her husband and all her sons save for one at sea. Once he died, she coped with the unrelenting and brutal nature of death. The second, Le pauvre matelot, was a French opera by Darius Milhaud. It dealt with the unexpectedness and abruptness of death when a wife unknowingly killed her husband after he had returned from sea. Finally, in Savitri by Gustav Holst, Death itself came for the husband of Savitri, but she tricked Death into returning her husband to her.
“In each one, a character experiences death in some way, whether it’s inflicted by a human, nature or a spirit,” said first year voice performance graduate student Grace Wipfli, who played the wife in Le pauvre matelot. “Death is something we all will experience, but we will never be able to share in that experience.”
Everyone can understand the looming presence of death, but the opera asked another, more philosophical question, “Can death be an illusion?” The opera dealt with the concept of Maya, which comes from Hindu folklore and essentially means that everything is really just an illusion. In the opera, the audience could see the outlines of the chorus pressing their hands against the white panels in the background when Death appeared on stage, and their presence along with swirling projections on the panels created the feel of an optical illusion.
“Everything is an illusion,” said Jensen. “You don’t know what is real and what is not. Even in the end Death himself says, ‘for even death is Maya.’”
This final line beautifully summarizes the show, for although Death was only a character in the last one-act, Schamberger incorporated him into each of the other operas. Death’s world and the human world often blended together as Death appeared in each of the one-acts to take all of the dead characters offstage. However, in the final one-act, Savitri “beat” Death and he returned her dead husband back to her.
The haunting music, the succinctness of the one-acts, and the universal themes of Moments of Mortality as a whole created the perfect taste of opera for students who otherwise might not be interested.