Listen to This: Opera Saratoga’s New Contemporary Vocal Series

Before the swinging, gambling-themed summer season kicks off with great fanfare, Opera Saratoga welcomes three powerful contemporary works collectively called Listen to This. These pieces are not just modern, but they push the envelope in mind-blowing ways, handing the mic to cutting-edge creators who break through old-fashioned boundaries of what people think opera even is. Performed at Universal Preservation Hall in a 60- to 90-minute workshop form, these Tuesday evenings are a chance for the public to see firsthand the intense and vital early stages of the creation of new vocal works.

June 4 brings the composer Robert Whalen’s The Other Side of Silence, the first known opera to use acoustic or synthetic voices. “Robert runs ensembles at RPI, and he was really interested in writing an opera,” says Mary Birnbaum, Opera Saratoga’s general and artistic director. “He started this work during the pandemic, with people who use synthetic voice. When people hear that, they think of Stephen Hawking. But these lyricists he works with, they have speech or language disorders and use synthetic voices to communicate. They constantly feel kind of misunderstood.”

The performance is Saratoga’s chance to see this compelling piece of technology-driven music that is otherwise being workshopped in Troy, as part of a partnership with RPI via an NYSCA research grant. “This piece is a story about how language and sound are produced,” Birnbaum says of the piece that also explores technology’s impact on individuality. “It gives voice to the voiceless.”

Next up: Winterreise, with bass baritone William Socolof; director George Miller, an Albany native who started out with Lake George Opera (now Opera Saratoga); and pianist Chris Reynolds, who met Birnbaum at Juilliard (where she’s been on faculty since 2011) but is originally from Saratoga. “George is a stage director who pitched me a reimagined version of the iconic song cycle by Schubert,” Birnbaum says of the piece that is all-male by design. “A man wanders in a winter landscape in this piece about desolation and despair—and then he finds hope again. It deals with male loneliness and masculinity.” Attendees will be treated to a short talk with the popular local musicologist Tom Denny after the performance.

Rounding out the series is I woke up in the sky, by the Regina Spektor-esque singer/songwriter Catherine Brookman. “It isn’t really an opera at all,” Birnbaum says. “It’s more for lovers of pop. But the scope and emotion of it is operatic—Catherine will be singing about her adventures during 2020, when she was a Covid nomad. The title comes from the time she skydove, fell asleep in the sky, and then woke up! Her vocals and lyrics are as powerful and personal as every great opera libretto.”

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