By DEAN M. SHAPIRO, Special to the CCJN
Born to Jewish parents in the Russian city of Chelyabinsk on the border of Siberia, composer, concert pianist, poet and visual artist Lera Auerbach has made a huge impact on the international creative arts scene since settling in the United States in the early 1990s at the age of 18.
Over the years since then, Auerbach has published more than 100 works for orchestra, opera and ballet, as well as choral and chamber music and solo concertos, en route to becoming one of today’s most innovative and sought-after creative voices.
Currently midway through a three-month residency in New Orleans under the sponsorship of Loyola University and with support from several local musical arts groups, Auerbach has already performed a solo piano recital and had one of her original symphonies performed by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.
Before the end of her residency, she will be performing another recital (on April 11) and giving talks and other performances of her work, in addition to gathering up source material for a series of art installations she plans to create paying tribute to the city of New Orleans and her experiences here.
From April 4-7, Auerbach will enjoy yet another triumph in New Orleans when her one-act, one-hour opera, “The Blind,” is given four performances at the Marigny Opera House. Possibly the world’s first (and only!) a cappella opera, the work is being sung by a 16-member choral ensemble with no live orchestration.
Staged under the auspices of the New Orleans Opera Association, Auerbach herself will conduct members of the New Orleans Opera Chorus in all voice categories.
The storyline of the opera revolves around an 1890, one-act play of the same name by Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck. A group of blind patients have been led into the forest by their priest but they soon get lost and the priest dies before he can get help for them. The group must now find their way out of the forest with no one possessing sight to guide them.
As Auerbach states in the program notes, “There are more questions than answers in this opera and each listener can decide on their own interpretation. Is it a metaphor for our lives, our religions, or our own blindness? In our ‘immersive theater’ production, you will experience the heightened sensory perception of joining the cast of sightless individuals as you enter the forest with them.”
To enhance the experience of the cast members’ sightless dilemma, audience members at all four New Orleans productions are invited to be voluntarily blindfolded for the entire performance.
Created in 2001, “The Blind” did not receive its premiere until ten years later when it was finally staged by an opera company in Berlin. The reason for the long gap was because, according to Auerbach, there was no precedent for an a cappella opera.
“I remember talking to a few directors about it but the moment they realized there is no orchestral accompaniment they thought I was completely insane,” she said. “So the work ended up in my desk for many years and it just sat there.”
Since its favorably reviewed world premiere “The Blind” has been performed at Lincoln Center in New York City and in Moscow, Vienna and other American and European cities. However, Auerbach was only peripherally involved in those early productions, she explained.
“The performances in New Orleans will be actually the first time I am involved personally,” Auerbach said. “For all of the other performances I’d come in at the last moment if there was something I needed to do like coach the singers and there were some (performances) that I was not able to attend. So I am very much looking forward to coming to New Orleans and working directly with the singers.”
The local cast will consist of tenors Kameron Lopreore, William Alber and Bart Folse; sopranos Haley Whitney, Hillary Smith and Karina Valle; baritones H. Aaron Ambeau, Frank Convit and Matt McCann; contraltos Rachel Abbate and Mirella Cavalcante; mezzo-sopranos Zara Zemmels, Maggie Probst and Amanda McCarthy; and basses Fionn Hunter-Green and James Resch.
Further describing the opera, Auerbach termed it “very symbolic and metaphorical. I think it is very relevant for our time: a time of disconnect and of not being able to see each other . . . face to face and relying on technology while becoming more and more lonely
“It’s designed to sort of break the barrier between the listener and the stage,” Auerbach added.
A “Renaissance Person” by every definition of the term, Auerbach’s prodigious musically creative output has resulted in one other opera, plus 10 full symphonic works, 9 ballets, 11 concertos and dozens of quartets, trios, duets, solo and choral pieces. And, at only 45 years old, many more works can be expected from her in the years to come.
On March 30, 2019 Auerbach had a full orchestral piece premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. It was her fourth symphony, titled “Arctica,” and it included a choir and solo piano on which she performed as soloist. It is scheduled to be reprised in seven other countries bordering on or close to the Arctic Circle.
Many of Auerbach’s works have Jewish themes or undercurrents running through them, primarily from the Old Testament and including three psalms set to music and sung by a choir.
Commenting on her Jewish heritage, Auerbach noted that, while not belonging to any particular synagogue because of her extensive travel schedule, she still feels strongly about her roots in the faith.
“A lot of my pieces reflect on that,” Auerbach said. “One of my pieces that’s being performed a lot right now is called ’72 Angels’ and is based on the names of angels from the Kabbalistic text. I also have a Requiem Mass that is using Hebrew as one of the main languages. It was commissioned by the Dresden Staatskapelle (Symphony) and it deals with World War II. I am using Hebrew as one of the principal languages throughout the work.”
Memorializing the Allied bombing of Dresden during World War II, the Requiem, Auerbach added, “addresses the past and the present. It uses different languages but Hebrew is one of them and it incorporates some Jewish prayers also.”
In addition to her talents as a composer and performer, Auerbach is also a published author, a poet whose rhymes have been set to music in her compositions, and a visual artist whose sculptures and paintings have been widely exhibited at prestigious galleries. She has won a number of awards and commissions for her visual works. During her New Orleans residency she is keeping diaries that she hopes will form the basis for a series of publicly displayed sculptures she will be gifting to the city.
Shortly after the final showing of “The Blind,” Auerbach will be giving another solo recital at Loyola University on Thursday, April 11. At that performance she will be playing her original “24 Preludes” in the Louis Roussel Performance Hall.
Summing up the experiences of her residency so far, Auerbach was effusive in her praise for Ranney Mize, president of the LPO, past president of the New Orleans Opera Association and a board member of several other presenting organizations.
“Ranney has been instrumental in putting all of this together,” Auerbach said. “It wouldn’t have happened if not for him. He has been the mastermind who was able to get all these different organizations to join the effort and coordinate. He has been the visionary behind this, as well as (New Orleans Opera Association General Director) Robert Lyall. They’re both wonderful and deserve as much credit as possible. It’s never easy to pull something like this together, so they put a lot of love and care and vision into it,” Auerbach concluded.
WHAT: A one-hour, a cappella opera sung by a 16-member cast under the auspices of the New Orleans Opera Association
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday
WHERE: Marigny Opera House, 725 St. Ferdinand Street, New Orleans
TICKETS AND INFO: (504) 529-3000. firstname.lastname@example.org