UT season opens with premiere of Across A Distance

University Theatre opens its new season with the world premiere of “Across A Distance”, a multimedia bilingual performance piece for soprano and deaf actor (Mitchell Theater, Sept. 17 – 25). The creative team for this exciting new work includes playwright Nick Lantz and performer Robert Schleifer, and a trio well known at Madison Opera: soprano Julia Faulkner (recently heard in The Turn of the Screw and The Flying Dutchman), director Kelly Bremner (a regular assistant director for Madison Opera), and composer Scott Gendel (staff accompanist for Madison Opera). In development for over five years, “Across A Distance” unites Deaf performance and opera through an allegorical tale about Man, a storyteller, and Woman, a scientist, who live on separate islands, longing to connect. 

We caught up with Scott to learn more about his new piece.

MadOpera: How would you describe your music for “Across a Distance”?

Scott: The music for “Across a Distance” is really written around the sounds of Julia Faulkner’s voice and Nick Lantz’s poetry.

Nick’s words don’t shy away from complexity, but are also written in simple, plain language. To pick up on that style, my music for this show is based on the richness of Romantic and early 20th century opera, but has elements of musical theatre and folk song woven in. In this way, the songs bridge the gap between a dense operatic language and a simpler “pop music” sensibility.

Julia’s voice is so luscious; she has an amazing way with legato lines, and a deep understanding of Romantic gesture from all her work on the operas of Richard Strauss. But not everyone knows that she has a strong musical theatre background, which lends her a wonderful ability to deliver a sung line simply, as if it were speech. So her voice is really perfectly matched to Nick’s poems; her basic sound is lush and full of color, but she can also sing in a more direct vernacular style.

My music, then, is operatic in most ways: grand gestures, long legato phrases, lush harmonies that recall Romantic and 20th century operas, and a real focus on the beautiful sound of the voice. But the songs also incorporate aspects of musical theatre and folk song traditions, so that when the poetry takes on a simpler, more direct tone, the music reflects that by moving into more speech-like modes of expression, influenced by popular music.

MadOpera: How has your work as accompanist for Madison Opera informed how you write for the voice?

Scott: My job as accompanist for Madison Opera (and for other vocal performances) has been a huge help in composing music for the voice! By coaching such accomplished singers, I get the privilege to hear what kinds of phrases a professional singer loves to sing, what music causes them the biggest headaches, how to best set up a singer for success on high notes, how a performer’s voice changes over the course of a 3-hour opera, and countless other observations that have been invaluable in my composing career. And of course, getting to completely immerse myself in operatic masterworks for weeks at a time is a wonderful luxury that I count as one of the great joys of my chosen profession. There is no better way to learn about opera than to lose oneself in it! Through such intensive score study, I learn how to effectively support a singer with instrumental accompaniment, how to create character development through musical gestures, and so much more.

“Across a Distance” opens tomorrow night. Bringing Scott’s music to life in the pit is the Solo Nero Duo: Jessica Johnson, piano, and Tony Di Sanza, percussion.

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Benjamin Taylor

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