Saariaho and Little, and what it means to be human

On Monday, a great new UMich SMTD collaboration is happening between the vocal department and the Contemporary Directions Ensemble, when we play during David T. Little’s residency this weekend. I want to tell you something about why we chose the music we did, music which is rocking my world right now.

Oriol Sans (the CDE music director) and I had been looking for a way to work together, and when we found out Little was coming to Ann Arbor, we knew immediately we wanted to do some excerpts from his smash opera DOG DAYS. Another work we’d talked about was Katja Saariaho’s TEMPEST SONGBOOK, and the two works just seemed to call out to one another.

In Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST, the powerful magician Prospero controls the strange creature Caliban on an enchanted island. The atmosphere is both beautiful and threatening. In DOG DAYS, the father of a family stranded somewhere in America by an unseen war confronts another man who dresses and acts like a dog. Around these strange pairings, female characters orbit, both frightened by and drawn to the males. Miranda reaches out to her father Prospero, suffering with those he causes to suffer; the mother and daughter in DOG DAYS try without success to connect with the father of their family, Howard, and try in vain to hold back his violence. Saariaho’s TEMPEST characters inhabit an island, and the DOG DAYS characters are marooned in the island of their house. So much of Shakespeare’s text has to do with dreaming and fantasy, and the people of Little’s opera dream and fantasize too, as their world disintegrates.

Both pieces swirl around the question of what it is to be human. How do we treat each other? What beings do we count worthy of our care? When do we stop caring for others, or for ourselves, and why?

This concert doesn’t tell a specific story or answer any questions. But the music we’re working on has moved, troubled, and enchanted me.

“What’s past is prologue” – Shakespeare, THE TEMPEST

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