Mallory Catlett and Aaron Siegel @ BAC
Each season, Baryshnikov Arts Center invites writers into the studio to interview BAC Resident Artists. The resulting essays offer an intimate behind-the-scenes look at the creative process.
Certain stories demand to be told as operas. Their drama or tragedy is so poignant as to be inherently operatic. Such is the case with Janet Frame’s 1968 novel Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room, which director Mallory Catlett and composer Aaron Siegel are adapting for the stage as an opera called Rainbird, taking its title from the lead family’s poetic last name.
I spoke with Catlett and Siegel towards the end of their BAC Space Residency. They are rigorous and thoughtful artists who are telling, according to them, a story that starts out dark and gets darker. And yet, the iterative process of collaboration they describe appears to maintain spaciousness.
Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room is a story of life and death (mostly death), trauma, anxieties, erasure, and difference. A man, Godfrey Rainbird, is pronounced dead from an accident, and then comes alive three days later in the morgue. This indigestible rewind infects his family, a wife and two children; his place of business, a tourism agency; and society at large by way of the media. No one in his life is able to process his death experience. It forces everyone to confront their own mortality, which pushes their psyches and behavior to the edge. Godfrey becomes a liability and a pariah. His difference is intolerable.
Sharing her deep familiarity with and affinity for Frame, Catlett articulates exactly why this novel begs to be an opera: these characters are mundane, but this is a mythic experience; how we deal with life and death is how we are connected to the gods.
Catlett came to Frame in graduate school; Siegel came to Frame through Catlett. Award-winning, reclusive, and prolific, she has a cult following for her poetic approach to prose and her unabashed writing on mental illness and death, some stemming from her own experiences coming of age in New Zealand. Catlett and Siegel have collaborated once before, with Catlett directing an opera Siegel had composed and written. For Rainbird, they wanted to develop something together from the beginning. Siegel is still composing and Catlett directing, but they are writing, or as they say more accurately, assembling, the libretto together, heavily inspired by the novel. It is also Frame’s agility with language that lends her text to song.
As for the music, a self-professed romantic, Siegel described finding ways to juxtapose sound to the tone or mood of a scene. He talked about creating additional meaning through sound, having the most impact on the storytelling at that moment, commenting on, and creating from, the language at the same time.
With three instrumentalists and four vocalists, Catlett and Siegel shared a searing excerpt from the opera in progress in November at the residency’s culmination. For the two years they have been developing Rainbird, they have integrally included the instrumentalists and vocalists in the process. Atypical for opera, these fellow collaborators have participated in creative decision-making, rendering ideas musically, and improvising; they therefore know the text and music intimately. As Siegel promised it would, the music aptly, viscerally echoed the narrative’s anxieties with moaning violin and plinking toy piano. The singers’ voices were achingly ethereal and transporting. The excerpt took us through Godfrey’s death and resurrection, his wife Beatrice’s confusion, his sister’s futile attempt to aim her towards religion as a salve, and his boss’ letting him go with a (paltry) “tidy sum” as recompense. It was heartbreaking.
On display was exactly what Catlett had described in Frame’s work: the characters’ (humanity’s) paralyzing inability to deal with the unknown–foremost death–and the related tendency to destroy those things we cannot explain. Also on display was Catlett and Siegel’s sonic, visual, and emotional capacity for operatic storytelling and their powerful ability to shine light on the darkness.
Melissa Levin is an arts administrator and curator committed to innovative, inclusive, and comprehensive approaches to supporting artists and initiating programs. She is currently the VP of Artists, Estates and Foundations at Art Agency Partners, where she advises artists and their families on legacy planning. Previously, Levin worked at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for more than 12 years, where as VP of Cultural Programs she led the program design and artistic direction of LMCC’s Artist Residency programs, the Arts Center at Governors Island, and the River To River Festival. Together with Alex Fialho, Levin has curated multiple, critically-acclaimed exhibitions dedicated to the late Michael Richards’s art, life, and legacy. Levin proudly serves on the boards of the Alliance of Artists Communities and Danspace Project. She received a B.A. with honors in Visual Art and Art History from Barnard College.