‘The Dawn Makers’ at Herbst Hall

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.

So Tennyson opens his long poem on the hazards of immortality, placed in the words of the Trojan hero, Tithonos, a man doomed to immortality by his lover Eos, the goddess of Dawn. Doomed, because Eos in her request for unending life forgets to include never-ending youth. Each morning, the goddess awakes renewed in splendor, while her lover grows that much older, wizened and shrunken until, finally, there’s not much left of him but a tremulous voice. Mercifully, perhaps, she turns him into a cricket.

Composer Allen Shearer and librettist Claudia Stevens have used this myth to create a new opera, The Dawn Makers, which will be performed this coming Wednesday as part of Composer Inc.’s 25th anniversary celebration.

In the mode of new opera, Shearer and Stevens’ piece takes a more ironic and raucous path. Eos and Tithonos have been updated to Gloria and Victor; the new Dawn lover on the scene is a groomsman and former pool cleaner named Bo; and Gloria’s steeds, which draw her lustrous chariot across the sky, are two young fillies with Valley Girl accents and a hormonally rich attraction to their studly keeper, Bo. The setting is Olympus, but the time is now.

This stew of place and time allowed the Berkeley-based duo to enrich the opera’s meaning with comedy. In a culture in which facelifts and body carvings are the everyday practice of its idolized celebrities, humor makes discussions of decay and death more palatable. And perhaps more relevant.

The mélange also allowed Shearer, through the shifts in Stevens’ text and characterizations, to use a variety of musical approaches in his composition. Shearer, a baritone as well as a composer, is known for a composition style that is both lyrical and complex. In the opera, however, Shearer has gone for a “broader” approach—“I haven’t allowed myself as much complexity.” Intricacy, however, is imbued in shifts in vocal character and text, which in turn cause shifts in compositional style. Even rock and roll winds itself here and there into the music. “There is a lot of rhythmic detail,” adds Stevens.

A complete collaboration

Unwinding the threads of the opera’s development is intricate in itself, for Shearer and Stevens, as husband and wife, spend a lot of time collaborating, and input on each other’s work is fair game for both players. Shearer had originally been taken with the idea of a singer diminishing on stage until there was nothing left but a voice. That seemed, in his mind at the moment, to be a great thing to represent on stage. He laughs, “Of course, it wouldn’t be a great thing at all.” Tithonos, however, does transform on stage, giving Shearer the opportunity to create music like “a grasshopper in flight.”

In the fall of 2006, Stevens rallied both their forces to realize Shearer’s idea into an opera. Their main attraction to the myth was that it was a “good story.” Though Stevens comments that it is “also a story about moral choice”—an ability intrinsic to mortals: “The mortal gets to choose, but the gods are stuck.” Bo can choose, like Tithonos, for immortality—hopefully with enough foresight to include youthfulness in the packet. “The gods,” she continues, “have a moral dilemma; they have to go on and on.”

Stevens is a pianist, singer and musician who incorporates her various talents into monologues that often pose ethical questions in a historical personification. Her monologue by a woman who has survived Hitler’s camps by playing and singing for the Nazis has been performed in many venues nationwide.

In the course of writing the opera, Shearer had two singers “firmly in mind, their voices, their bodies, and their personas”—soprano Christine Brandes and tenor John Duykers—for the lead roles of Eos (Gloria) and Tithonos (Victor). Brandes for the “quality of her voice, her range and her lyricism” and Duykers for his “ability as a performer and his extremely strong presence on stage.” Both singers accepted the roles, so the audience will have the great pleasure of hearing Brandes and Duykers in roles that were written for them.

In another brilliant bit of casting, the vibrantly voiced baritone Eugene Branconeauvu sings the hunky Bo. Soprano Anja Strauss and mezzo-soprano Erin Neff complete the cast as the fillies who, according to Stevens, are “always going to be trotting, cavorting, with their little hoofs up.” Joining the singers is an ensemble of seven of the Bay Area’s finest musicians.

Brian Stauffenbiel, who recently recreated Lou Harrison’s Young Caesar in a splendid 2007 San Francisco production, signed on as director. Matthew Antaky and Richard Battle have the enviable jobs of designers of scenery and lighting, the former, and costumes, the latter. Who wouldn’t want the costume challenge of turning lovelies Strauss and Neff into snorting horses and the formidable John Duykers into a cricket?

With the opera in its final week of production, Shearer and Stevens are happy to leave the piece in the hands of their excellent production team. And what are their hopes for the opera? “Our hopes are for a brilliant premiere,” answers Shearer. “And lots of fun,” chimes in Stevens.

Thank the goddess

After San Francisco Opera’s announcement on Monday that it would be confining its season choices to one “break-away” opera per every three Italian operas, meaning a 2009–2010 season of the mostly tried and true, it’s heartening that new opera continues in the Bay Area, and that composers and singers continue to experiment and provide operas that, by their nature, are more truly of our time and understanding.

—Jaime Robles

This article originally appeared in the Berkeley Daily Planet