L. Brett Scott
James Demler Jennifer Lynn Reckamp
Shining Brow cast members (l. to r.) Gilda Lyons, James Demler, Tony Barton, Deborah Fleischer, Eric Fleischer, Robert Frankenberry, and Jennifer Lynn Reckamp onstage at Kleinhans Hall in Buffalo between rehearsals.
They are two of Buffalo's guiding lights. Frank Lloyd Wright left us a wealth of creations,
including the Darwin Martin House, pointing to the past and the future. Louis Sullivan's legacy is our magnificent,
imposing terra cotta Guaranty Building.
The two architects lived and worked at a time when the
world was changing so fast that, looking back, it seems a blur. "Shining Brow," the opera by Daron Hagen about Wright's
impressive array of midlife crises — which included a thorny professional relationship with Sullivan — captures this moment with close to perfect accuracy. Music can express what can't be said in words, or even in bricks and mortar.
Many people tend to avoid new music, fearing it is dissonant and jarring. Hagen's music is not. Except for a couple of shocking moments, it falls sweetly on the ears. The Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, especially, contributes lovely, carollike interludes. BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta moves the work along with a steady grace.
The references to the music of Wright's time are striking. An anguished cry mirrors a moment in Mahler's "Songs of a Wayfarer." The opera's second half includes a whimsical collage of the teens.
A kind of barbershop quartet refers to historical events, from Geronimo to the Model T. A cafe pianist and violinist [Amy Glidden, the Philharmonic's associate concertmaster, fills the role charmingly] play a waltz. The charm is shockingly offset by the musical depiction of the murder of Wright's muse, Mamah, and her children at Taliesin. Hagen makes the orchestra instruments scream, and a haunting image appears on screen of flames and the shadow of a hand.
Baritone Robert Orth makes Wright a sympathetic figure. It's a glitch of casting that Robert Frankenberry, who plays his
"Lieber Meister" [dear master] Sullivan, looks so much younger. Frankenberry threatens to steal the show. His clear tenor
carries easily through the hall. The light-voiced Elaine Valby gives a touching portrayal of the abandoned Catherine Wright,
and Brenda Harris gives Mamah an arresting intensity. Mamah's husband, Edwin, is sung by Matthew Curran, an excellent baritone.
— Mary Kunz, Buffalo News, 11/5/06
"Shining Brow," Daron Hagen's opera about a tumultuous time in the life of Frank Lloyd Wright, ends with a tragedy.
The love of Wright's life has just been massacred, along with most of their household. The architect stands on stage,
dazed and alone, wondering how he will go forward.
This weekend, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra will be
joined by a cast of singers for a semi-staged performance of that opera. Hagen will be in the audience, and as he loses
himself again in the drama, he will almost certainly remember the emotions he felt after the first production, 15 years ago.
"What I will never forget is when Paul Muldoon, the librettist, and I were standing at the back rail, and the stage director,
Stephen Wadsworth, he tapped me on the shoulder and he said, "You did that.' I said, "What?' He said, "Look around.
They're all crying.' "
Hagen grows quiet, reliving the moment. "I said, "Good, that's what you want.' I realized
here we were in the dark telling ghost stories.
"We were partaking in a ritual that goes back to the beginning of time,"
he says. "It's a communion. It's what the Catholic Church understands. That what makes Mass moving. It's the distillation of opera.
What opera hopes to achieve is that communion."
Hagen, who has written four major operas, has been in town most of the week helping prepare
the latest production of "Shining Brow."
Already, he's familiar with Buffalo from research he has done on Wright's architecture
and also from Wright's ardent cult of fans, whom he hears from frequently.
JoAnn Falletta, who will be conducting the opera,
stresses the beauty of its music.
"The opera is very romantic, neo-romantic," she says. "Daron Hagen went back to the kind of
language that really speaks to people. It's very accessible, warm, beautiful music - lush, wonderfully written for voice."
Falletta is sure "Shining Brow" will speak to Buffalonians.
"It talks about Buffalo a lot," she says.
"He never thought it would be coming to Buffalo, but it talks about his early life, houses he's
building in Buffalo where one room flows into the next. He talks about the Darwin Martin house, which is eerie. He talks about his thorny relationship with Louis Sullivan," she adds, alluding to the great architect who built our Guaranty Building.
Hagen, 44, grew up in Wisconsin, not far from Taliesin, Wright's estate. He wrote the opera in the 1980s, coached by his composition teacher, Leonard Bernstein. (Hagen refers to him as "L.B.")
"Shining Brow" confronts Wright at what could be called the dramatic crossroads of his life. The opera's opening finds him beginning to break free from his mentor, Sullivan. His personal life is thrown into upheaval, too, when he meets Mamah, the woman for whom he would leave his wife.
When he wrote "Shining Brow," Hagen was fascinated by this turbulent point in Wright's life. The composer, who is married, was particularly drawn by Wright's struggles to balance his creativity with his family.
"Back then, I was giving a lot of time in my own life to thinking about what role a family plays in the life of a dedicated artist,"
he says. "To put that many people's lives in jeopardy because of your own personal and ethical decisions, that's great personal drama."
What words does Hagen have for all of us who will be seeing his opera for the first time?
Hagen pauses, pondering.
"I would encourage you to take the journey with the characters," he says.
"It's my hope — and the librettist's, Paul Muldoon's —
that at the end of the opera, people wind up thinking about the personal decisions all these people made. To me, that's the power of a great human drama
like this, about the intersection between life and art. We don't answer any questions, but we do pose questions." —Mary Kunz, Buffalo News, 11/3/06
Cast members of Shining Brow arrayed before the stretch Hummer that the Buffalo Philharmonic provided to ferry them
to and from rehearsals. (l. to r.) Jennifer Lynn Reckamp, Elem Eley, Robert Frankenberry, Brenda Harris, Tony Barton, Daron Hagen (composer), Matthew Curran, Gilda Lyons, James Demler. (Photo by Robert Orth)
Left: Robert Frankenberry (Louis Sullivan). Right: Brenda Harris (Mamah Cheney) and Jennifer Lynn Reckamp (Wife / Townswoman #1).
The cast of the Buffalo Philharmonic's 2006 semi-staged production of Shining Brow: (front row, l. to r.)
Elem Eley, Matthew Curran, Robert Frankenberry, JoAnn Falletta (conductor), Daron Hagen (composer), Brenda Harris, Robert Orth, Gilda Lyons;
(back row, l. to r.) Elaine Valby, Jennifer Lynn Reckamp, Eric Fleischer, Deborah Fleischer, James Demler, Tony Barton.
Inspiration for Music Comes from Many Sources
Shining Brow and architectural opera
Judith White, for The Saratogian, 11/13/06
Saratoga knows well the amazing talents of the visiting artists at Yaddo, the historic artist's retreat at the edge of our city.
Composer Daron Hagen was named a lifetime member of Yaddo just last month, after multiple residencies over the past 22 years. Hagen was a force
behind opening Yaddo to the public for Yaddo/Copland concerts, reminiscent of the American Music Festival founded at Yaddo by the late, premiere
American composer Aaron Copland. Hagen's own music has been well received in this region, and is championed by David Alan Miller, music director
for the Albany Symphony Orchestra.
Last weekend, I had the opportunity to hear one of Hagen's operas, Shining Brow (part of which was composed at Yaddo),
performed in a semi-staged version by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, a cast of vocal soloists and the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus.
Hagen worked with multi-talented Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon (also a frequent Yaddo guest) as librettist, to write this opera
about America's pioneer architect: Frank Lloyd Wright.
Wright's "prairie house" accomplishments are being championed in Buffalo, where his incredible, six-structure, Darwin Martin House complex is
currently undergoing a magnificent restoration.
A tour of the Martin House — a National Historic Landmark — added depth to my understanding of Hagen and Muldoon's work, although the opera stands
strongly by itself.
There is no question that Wright was a creative genius. His revolutionary philosophy of creating harmony between buildings and nature is evident in
every piece of detailed molding, choice of mortar for bricks, the many art glass windows —
and in every choice of orientation and flow in this 1904 home.
Similarly, Hagen and Muldoon detailed their work with perfect joinings and displays.
The mood is intensely human; the colors and musical styles change as the characters develop; there is ample evidence of human nature's
ability to soar with independence and creativity, and to suffer through tragedy.
BPO's music director, JoAnn Falletta, pulled this challenging production together for just two performances. Complete with full chorus and a
wide cast of singers, this was a monumental undertaking, and it left the audience stunned with its accomplishment, and with the intensity of
emotion the opera created.
Like the works of Wright, and like every great, classic opera, this partnership joined nature with art. Great art inspiring great art? Hagen, Muldoon and Falletta took on Frank Lloyd Wright, and gave his architectural brilliance a new artistic dimension.
(Left) Gilda Lyons and James Demler; (Middle) Robert Orth; (Right) Deborah Fleischer.
(Left) James Demler; (Middle) James Demler, Eric Fleischer, Tony Barton, Elem Eley; (Right) Robert Orth, Tony Barton.
(Left) Matthew Curran, Tony Barton; (Middle) Daron Hagen, JoAnn Falletta; (Right) Robert Orth.
The images above were created by noted Buffalo artist Robert Hirsch under the composer's supervision for the Buffalo Philharmonic's concert
performances of Shining Brow. Robert Hirsch is a
photographer, writer, and the Director of Light Research (www.lightresearch.net). His books include
Seizing the Light: A History of Photography, Photographic Possibilities: The Expressive Use of Ideas, Materials,
and Processes, and Exploring Color Photography. Hirsch is a former Associate Editor for Digital Camera (UK)
and Photovision Magazine, and a contributor to Afterimage, exposure, Buffalo Spree, Fotophile, FYI, History of Photography,
Ilford Photo Instructor Newsletter, and The Photo Review, as well as former Director of CEPA Gallery.
Picture Credits: (Top to Bottom) JoAnn Falletta,
Daron Hagen, Jim Courtney (Buffalo Philharmonic), Courtney, Gilda Lyons, Robert Orth,
Hagen, Hagen, Dan Hart; (1st row) Hagen, Lyons, Tony Barton; (2nd row) Barton. Barton, Fleischer;
(3rd row) Fleischer, Courtney, Lyons; (Bottom) Barton.
A Frank Lloyd Wright opera in Buffalo Concertonet.com
by Michael Johnson
Kleinhans Music Hall
11/04/2006 - 5 Nov 2006 Daron Hagen: Shining Brow
Robert Orth (Frank Lloyd Wright), Brenda Harris (Mamah Cheney), Matthew Curran (Edwin Cheney), Robert Frankenberry (Louis Sullivan), Elaine Valby (Catherine Wright), Gilda Lyons (The Maid,/Townswoman #3), Elem Eley (Julian Carlton/Waiter/Reporter #3/Workman #4), James Demler (Workman #1/Guest/Photographer/Last Draftsman), Jennifer Lynn Reckamp (Wife/Townswoman #1), Tony Barton (Draftsman/Workman #2/Reporter #2), Deborah Fleischer (Townswoman #2/Wife), Eric Fleischer (Reporter #1/Workman #3/Workman #5)
Daron Hagen (Stage Direction), Robert Hirsch (Visual Images)
JoAnn Falletta (Conductor), L. Brett Scott (Chorus Master)
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus
The architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) was a tireless self-promoter — even a self-mythologizer. Almost fifty years after his death he is an American cult figure.
Millions are spent on restoring his buildings and projects based on his designs are still being constructed. Buffalo has a wealth of distinguished architecture, and Wright’s
local buildings were the focus of a November weekend conference. The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s contribution consisted of two semi-staged performances of Daron Hagen’s
Shining Brow, an opera premiered in 1993 in Madison, Wisconsin, the home state of both Wright and the composer. It was the first of four (so far) collaborations between
Hagen and the noted Irish poet Paul Muldoon. The Buffalo production is the fifth this work has received.
The title is the English translation of the Welsh “Taliesen”, a term of honour given to a medieval bard, and the name given by Wright to the home and utopian working community
he established on a Wisconsin hillside. It recounts episodes in Wright’s life between 1903 and 1914, a turbulent time for him both personally and professionally. A married
couple, Edwin and Mamah (pronounced may-maw) Cheney, commission a house from him, and Wright and Mrs Cheney fall in love. His wife, Catherine, with whom he has six children, refuses to
divorce him. A scandal ensues and this is professionally damaging. Wright and Mamah Cheney go to Europe for two years, where he manages to get a portfolio of his designs published,
and this helps establish his international reputation. After returning to the US, Mamah settles with Wright at his new Taliesen, and one day while he is absent an employee goes
berserk, setting the place on fire and murdering Mamah, her children and four other people. All the while his former mentor, Louis Sullivan, ruminates bitterly about Wright’s severing ties with him.
Following usual semi-staging procedures, the principals were arrayed in front of the orchestra, making entrances and exits according to the dictates of the plot. Visual interest
was enhanced by a series of 25 visual images projected onto a large screen stage rear, on which the surtitles also appeared. Some images were impressionistic, others more documentary in
style — for example a photo of Wright and his young family. The large screen had one drawback, however, in that it prevented the chorus from being seated on risers behind the
orchestra. Kleinhans Music Hall — which also has a distinguished provenance, having been designed by Eliel and Eero Saarinen — is strictly a concert hall and thus has
no pit. Balances would have been better if the orchestra had been in a pit and the chorus moved forward. As it happened, the chorus — except when singing a capella —
was distant and mushy. The hall has a crisp non-reverberant acoustic which assisted in the soloists’s words being heard — and of course they deserve credit for their clear enunciation.
The surtitles were really only needed for the chorus.
Hagen’s music can be described as expressive, lyrical, and well-crafted, cleverly using an eclectic array of instrumental effects. Does this approach have a name? — expressive
pragmatism perhaps? He certainly makes use of the full symphony orchestra, but never forces the singers to bellow over a tutti. This “style” (if such it can be called) is one I have
detected in other recent works from various countries — Poul Ruders’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Denmark), Turnage’s The Silver Tassie (UK), Moya Henderson’s Lindy,
(Australia), Randolph Peters’s The Golden Ass (Canada). The work contains two colourful orchestral interludes that could constitute a stand-alone concert piece (and an easy
introduction to Hagen’s music), much like Britten’s interludes from Peter Grimes.
Twice in the work Hagen borrows music from other composers. A scene for four construction workers is a direct take-off from the opening scene of Bernstein’s On the Town — a
tribute to Bernstein who was a mentor and the work’s dedicatee. This is an amusing reference and appropriate to the dramatic moment. More problematic (in that it enters the dreaded realm
of pastiche) is a borrowing from Der Rosenkavalier. Wright and Mamah had seen the new Strauss opera in Dresden and, when he later gives her a rose, a reference to the work is not
inappropriate. Brenda Harris sings (very nicely indeed) Sophie’s rapturous response, but this has the effect of letting another composer make a big statement and it momentarily reduces
the integrity of the work.
The singers were all very strong and skillfully put their characters across. (One advantage of semi-staging is that they all get to sing from the very front of the stage.) The
libretto’s virtue is that it establishes firm characters, but its defect — and the opera’s Achilles heel — is its non-stop ultra-poetic metaphors. Did Frank Lloyd Wright ever describe
himself as "a hump-backed whale with a mouth full of krill"? He might have done so in one of his many self-dramatizing moments — but this, and many similar phrases, tumble out of the singers’
mouths with alarming frequency. The last 20 minutes or so (after the announcement of the mass murder) meander repetitiously — both librettist and composer apparently can’t decide when to quit.
This opera deals with many standard "operatic" themes — a love triangle, a creative artist’s need to ignore if not violate convention, an illicit union that seems
to get its retribution in a disaster. The power of Hagen’s music overcomes frequent indulgences in the words and manages to transcend what otherwise would be the material of a local tabloid scandal.