Confusion, fear, panic, and loneliness are not uncommon emotions in opera. Add to the list aging, family dynamics, manipulation, suffering, madness, foolishness, order, vision, and loyalty, as inspired by the themes and character relationships in Shakespeare’s King Lear, and you have a compelling contemporary opera with a distinctly contemporary voice: Lear on the 2nd Floor, Eastman Opera Theatre’s fall production, taking place on November 3 through 6 in Kilbourn Hall.
This work, first performed in 2012, is the work of dramatist Allan Havis and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Anthony Davis.
Dr. Nora Lear, a respected, successful neuroscientist, as well as a mother with high expectations and feuding children, is plagued by early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease, leading to betrayal by her family (including three daughters and, unlike Lear, a spouse) and her own loss of memory. She is grasping for control, and as dramatic vignettes with her family members and the hospital staff fill in Nora’s life story, Davis’ musical language allows the listener to inhabit Nora’s deteriorating brain and body.
Anthony Davis, who won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for his opera The Central Park Five, is a prolific composer in all forms but probably is best known for writing operas with contemporary and often racial themes. Besides The Central Park Five they include X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, Amistad, and Wakanda’s Dream. His theater music draws idiomatically on jazz, rock, contemporary, indigenous music, and classical styles – whatever he thinks will suit the story, the setting, and the characters.
Some of the music for this opera originated in his score for a Yale Repertory Theatre production of King Lear, which included a storm interlude featuring electronics – music he hoped to revisit. He later saw the movie Away from Her, in which Julie Christie played an Alzheimer’s patient; this story, and his own experience of friends and relatives dealing with dementia (including a renowned doctor who could no longer speak, but could sing), led him to imagine a Lear-based opera with a contemporary setting and a female lead character suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.
Collaborating with Allan Havis, a prolific and frequently produced dramatist (who incidentally had recently worked on his own version of Shakespeare’s play in Yiddish), they produced Lear on the 2nd Floor at Princeton University and at the University of California at San Diego (where Davis is a professor) in 2012.
“Anthony Davis incorporates a wide array of sounds to depict this human tragedy that far too many of us know,” observes Timothy Long, Music Director of Eastman Opera Theatre. He continues, “The virtuoso chamber ensemble mixes with the words and sounds of the characters, but most notably in improvisations with Nora’s textless mind, to bring us a deeper understanding of Nora’s new world.”
Besides electronic and improvisational passages to illustrate Nora’s wandering mind, the musical voices include Bob Marley-inspired music for a Jamaican male nurse, and “some Charles Mingus smoky jazz” for one of Nora’s daughters, who works as an online porn star. (The other daughters are a young schoolteacher, unmarried and pregnant, and the wife of a lawyer, whom Davis describes as “coldblooded, merciless, and controlling.”)
Steven Daigle, Artistic Director of Eastman Opera Theatre, says “Alzheimer’s disease now finds itself generationally in almost every family throughout the world. Many involved in this production, and the audiences who will attend, have loved ones suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia.”
While the subject matter of Lear on the 2nd Floor may sound forbidding, Anthony Davis says that “It does translate into song, and into real lyricism. Allan’s lyrics have a tragicomic, absurdist humor. It is opera as theatre, which is what I like to do best. It requires an intimate space, and I am so happy Eastman is presenting it.”
Eastman Opera Theatre presents Lear on the 2nd Floor by Anthony Davis and Allan Havis
Steven Daigle, director
Timothy Long, conductor
Thursday, November 3 at 7:30 p.m.
Friday, November 4 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, November 5 at 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, November 6 at 2 p.m.
Go to EastmanTheatre.org for tickets