The Composer

Philip Glass (1937-)

Glass, an American composer, is often characterized as a “minimalist”, although he distances himself from this term. He is considered one of the most influential composers of the 20th century—credited with bringing “art” music to the public, sharing company with composers like Leonard Bernstein in this respect. He is a very prolific composer—writing in all genres of music: symphonic, chamber, choral, opera, dance, theater, and film. He was nominated for three Academy Awards based on his movie scores (of which there are many). To date, he has composed over twenty operas, most commissioned by major opera companies such as the Metropolitan Opera, Stuttgart Opera, Houston Grand Opera, San Francisco Opera, English National Opera, NY City Opera, The Netherlands Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera, etc. His first three operas form a trilogy based on the lives of major figures in science, politics, and religion: Einstein on the Beach (1976), Satyagraha (1980) and Akhnaten (1983). Since then, he has composed a trilogy of operas based on the work of French writer and film director, Jean Cocteau: Orphee, Le Belle et le Bête and Les Enfants Terrible. More recent operas include Kepler (based on the life of Johannes Kepler, the 16th century mathematician and astronomer), The Trial (Kafka short story), and The Perfect American (based on the life of Walt Disney).

The Opera

A chamber opera for 5 singers and 12 instrumentalists, The Fall of the House of Usher was composed in 1988, with a running time of 90 minutes. Based on the short story of the same name by Edgar Allan Poe with a libretto adapted by the playwright Arthur Yorinks.

The Story:
When William (the nameless narrator is the Poe story) visits his ill childhood friend Roderick Usher after many years apart, he is shaken to his core by the foreboding atmosphere and sense of evil that pervades the household and its inhabitants. His attempts to understand and address the literal and figurative “illness” that permeates Usher’s house fail at every turn, and he is unable to deter Usher, his sister Madeline, and the house itself from their swift descent into the abyss.

Themes: Guilt, shame, sickness, madness, isolation, repressed sexuality, homo eroticism, possible incest, murder. All implied and suggested in the short story. Very little is actually defined, revealed, or explained. What’s real? What’s imagined in a “mind diseased?”

From the Philip Glass website:
Poe’s famous horror story has fascinated poets, dramatists, and composers for over a century. Poe hints at much, but states hardly anything at all. Is the story real, or is it a hallucination? What are the relationship between the narrator (William), his friend Roderick Usher, and Roderick’s dying sister, Madeline? Has she been buried alive, or is it a demon from hell who takes such a spectacular revenge at the end? And is the vast house in which they live a living malignant entity? Incest, homosexuality, murder, and the supernatural hang in the air, but then again, such things may exist only in the imagination of the audience.

The Music

  • Strange, haunting, beautiful. Tons of atmosphere. Many, many things left unsaid a la Poe: The music fits the world of Poe quite effectively.
  • The orchestration is also very effective – in addition to strings and solo French horn, there is guitar, celeste, synthesizer, and percussion. This is one his strongest scores.
  • Glass’s music is, as always, whatever it needs to be for the scene at hand, by turns, meditative, frightening, dramatic, or tender.
  • While his early operas were more epic and grander in scale and length, The Fall of the House of Usher is relatively short and tight in dramatic structure.
  •  Like the operas of Benjamin Britten, the opera is as much an evening of theater as of music.

From conductor Michelle Rofrano:

“Glass’s compositional style is perfectly suited to musically recreate the dark, pervasive atmosphere of Edgar Allen Poe’s iconic tale of horror, The Fall of the House of Usher. In the original story by Poe, a narrator recounts his experience visiting the occupants of the doomed House of Usher. The narrator spends the entire first page of the story, and substantial prose in each scene, detailing the macabre mansion and its occupants, the inescapable gloom of his surroundings, and a foreboding, grim atmosphere. Poe uses endless descriptions and word-painting to evoke the gloomy setting of the story, where the omen of darkness and ultimately death hangs in the air.”

“Glass’s musical style, labeled “minimalism” by scholars but which Glass himself describes as “music with repetitive structures,” is optimally designed to create the all-encompassing, dread-inspiring atmosphere that is essential to the story. The seemingly incessant repetition of melancholy minor chords played by the orchestra, interrupted by unnerving interjections of solo instruments, create a suffocating atmosphere that engulfs the singers and audience in a way that mirrors the narrator’s dread in the haunted House of Usher”.

“This opera production will evoke audiences’ imaginations and force them to wrestle with the duality of pitying the characters onstage while simultaneously being horrified by their actions. I am greatly looking forward to delving into this fantastic score and to sharing the musical world of Philip Glass’s striking work with Portland audiences”.

The Production

From stage director Kevin Newbury:

“Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher is a timeless psychological thriller about the intersection of shame, madness, and imagination. In our new production of Philip Glass’ 1988 operatic adaptation of the classic Poe story, the action takes place in Palm Springs, CA in the summer of 1969. When two boyhood friends reconnect in this haven for closeted Hollywood queer culture, they are forced to confront their own demons in a production that marries film noir cinema, mid-century modern architecture and the pervasive force of homophobia raging both outside (and within) the walls of the house of Usher.”

“As an artist and activist, I am interested in exploring our shared queer history and the ways in which our society’s relationship to queerness has evolved over time. The societal shame inflicted on the LGBTQAI+ community has often been compounded by perhaps the most destructive demon of all: Internalized homophobia. In our production, Usher becomes a recently-outed closeted film star confronting his own queerness. When he invites his boyhood friend, William, to visit, he is surprised to meet a grown man who embraces his own sexuality in a post-Stonewall era.”

Other thoughts:
Stream of consciousness recollections from conversations with Kevin Newbury over the course of the past year concerning the production concept:

Think of it as a combination of Alfred Hitchcock (especially Rope and Vertigo) meets Sunset Boulevard.

The anguish of Rock Hudson when he was outed as gay – fear of his career collapsing – because his image as the quintessential leading man opposite Doris Day – was a lie.

Liberace till the very end publicly denied being gay and filed a major lawsuit against a British journalist who implied that he was. He and many others found a refuge and supposed safe cover in Palm Springs.

The Creative Process

Stay tuned here as we post commentary, design materials, video clips, and interviews about the process of creating a new opera production – from the very first design meeting through opening night.

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