Speculative fiction and opera: Kamratōn premieres a new opera by Curtis Rumrill and Zachary Webber
Blurring the line between heroism and demagoguery, ‘Her Holiness, the Winter Dog’ playfully imagines a bleak new future
By David Bernabo
Recital continues our partnership with the New Hazlett Theater by publishing a preview and an editorially-independent review for the five performances in the 2018–19 CSA Performance Series season.
Throughout the season, Recital is meeting with each of the artists to bring you a brief profile of them and their work in the days before their opening performance. We will publish a considered review or a post-show discussion with the artists for each performance, developed from post-show discussions with a consistent panel of local experts in related disciplines.
Imagine a world where humans cause ecological catastrophe, which, in turn, causes the extinction of most nonhuman animal life. Several generations of human life pass. A diminished upper class attempts to continue living lives of privilege while outside their estates masses of the poverty-stricken reside. Inside the estates, the wealthy employ servants to attend to their needs. Musicians are hired to perform during religious services. And dressed as animals, which have become a mythology, religious figures offer, “spiritual guidance, protection, and emotional comfort.”
Got it? Good, because that is the world of Her Holiness, the Winter Dog, a new opera composed by Curtis Rumrill with librettist Zachary Webber, performed and commissioned by Kamratōn with Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, Shana Simmons Dance, and musical director Daniel Curtis, and choreography by Shana Simmons.
The opera zooms in on an estate overseen by three sisters located somewhere in rural United States. Tensions arise when the family “dog” dies and the sisters quickly hire a Winter Dog as a replacement. The Winter Dog joins the house staff, which includes two “cats,” musicians, and servants, one of which is the opera’s protagonist, Theila, who is lovers with another servant, Jonna. According to a plot summary provided by Rumrill, the Winter Dog must “lead the household in holy defense against an imminent attack by the ‘Strangers.’” The “Strangers” refers to those outside the estate walls. The plot that emerges from this very original setup is surprising and mysterious and works as an incisive set of metaphors for the current political environment. “It explores the ways in which people make high-stakes political decisions in a world where facts and reality seem unclear and unknowable, and problematizes the blurred line between populist demagoguery and grassroots insurrection.”
Rumrill and Webber began conceptualizing the piece during the last U.S. presidential election, an event that colored the opera’s investigation of power and how an ethical person can live in a world where leaders are poorly intentioned.
“Creating different visions of the future is a fun way to think about horrifying and disturbing things,” says librettist Zachary Webber. “When you look at the near-term future, it’s difficult to get the space to be more playful since it’s real lives and real deaths and real suffering. In placing things in the future, you can soften [concepts] without making it feel fake.”
“We think of this piece as a piece of speculative fiction,” says Rumrill. “Something that happens with speculative fiction is that it’s actually not looking at the future. It’s looking at what’s going on now, and finding creative ways to dramatize that.”
While Her Holiness, the Winter Dog represents one of the most ambitious performances in the history of the New Hazlett Theater’s CSA series, rivaling this season’s opener by Afro Yaqui Music Collective, the number of performers is actually small compared to most operas.
“We’re living in an amazing time of music where all of these grand opera traditions and grand musical theater traditions, due to economic constraints, are forcing more ingenious composition and writing for smaller forces,” says Quince Ensemble’s Liz Pearse. “The amount of drama and sound and interesting theater that can be created by a small number of people amazes me.”
While relatively small in number, the cast for this opera represents a number of longtime dedicants to their fields.
Kamratōn emerged on Pittsburgh’s new music scene in 2015 as a women-created and women-curated ensemble and have premiered works by Elizabeth Brown, Lucie Vítková, Ramin Akhavijou, Lu-han Li, and Brian Riordan, among many others.
Quince Ensemble is a boundary-pushing vocal quartet that has performed works by John Adams, Jennifer Jolley, Steve Reich, and LJ White, and even sang on an album by Oneida’s Kid Millions’ solo project Man Forever.
Rumrill, an activist and internationally-performed composer, has worked with both ensembles before — Quince commissioned and premiered his The Passion of the Wilt-Mold Mothers and Kamratōn premiered In this Styrofoam Room.
Shana Simmons Dance formed in 2009 and has been an active presence in Pittsburgh’s dance scene, taking over buildings to make site-specific work and investigating topics like the extinction of the passenger pigeon and the role of editing in composing dance. Regarding Her Holiness, the Winter Dog, Simmons says, “One of the interesting challenges as far as putting the opera together, physically, is that certain scenes involve the musicians acting. Another choreographic element is choreographing animalistic movements on humans. We pared down our experiences with dogs and cats and what they do, but then we also have this human element in certain defiant moments where the characters start to challenge their masters.”
With movement responsibilities shared by three dancers, five singers, eight musicians, and Daniel Curtis doubling as conductor and the officiant, Her Holiness, the Winter Dog is an ambitious project, one that juggles nuanced conceptual plots, intricate music, and challenging stage directions. And there’s one more surprise.
“Curtis’s sound world is very unusual,” says Daniel Curtis. “He actually invented an instrument for the piece. He created this wild organ that plays in microtonality. So, from the very beginning, we have a palette of sounds that takes us into a strange world.”
Her Holiness, The Winter Dog premieres on Thursday, May 30 with a second performance on Friday, May 31 at 8PM at the New Hazlett Theater. Buy tickets here or at the door. 6 Allegheny Square E, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.