Atalanta (Acts of God)
1 “The Etchings” (30:26)
2 “Empire” (38:28)
“Au Pair” (54:15)
1 Lewis (5:44)
2 Gretchen (4:54)
3 Ingrid (3:27)
4 Andrea (10:50)
5 Leisel (2:26)
6 Simone (10:40)
7 Katja (5:32)
8 Justine (3:25)
9 Lili Marlena (4:39)
bu Epilogue (2:34)
THE ETCHINGS / EMPIRE / AU PAIR
These are long stories in the tradition of stories that are to be sung, but are too long to be sung without a musical accompaniment. Without the music (and even with the music) people drop out now and then and so they have to hear the story many times for all of the parts finally to come together. I know a lot of stories in that style from my childhood. It’s a wonderful way to hear a story. Now, with recording, the story can be heard many times.
The three songs are from the opera Atalanta (Acts of God).
Because Atalanta (Acts of God) is about a myth – one of the oldest European myths, about Atalanta, the fastest and bravest woman on Earth – I felt that the performances of the opera should have a “mythical” quality: no two performances of the opera should ever be the same. (If you are in the audience on Thursday night and a friend goes on Friday night, you and your friend see and hear two different pieces.)
The plot of Atalanta (Acts of God) is complicated and somewhat facetious (involving all sorts of local myths, not-so-high-tech flying saucers that land in the wrong place and at the wrong time, and characters who appear only for a few minutes to sing their songs). The plot, such as it is, is not important to explain here, but it is based on the notion of various singers who are trying to entertain “The Odalisque” (another virtually mythical woman) in her secret sanctum in the harem, the Oda. So the opera is basically about “showing off” by telling stories.
Atalanta (Acts of God) is made up of three operas, all having the same number of scenes, same treatment of voice parts in principal, core scenes and the same duration of the core scenes. All scenes are interchangeable among the three operas. The three operas are titled (in order) “Max,” “Willard” and “Bud.”
There is a simple image for the relationship and the interchangeability of parts of the three operas, “Max,” “Willard” and “Bud.” In this image there are three identical solar systems revolving in different planes around a common sun, the Odalisque. (In the story of the opera, Atalanta has become the Odalisque.) The planets (scenes) in the three systems are more or less the same size and speed of rotation, with the same moons and satellites, and so forth. So, you can make up a particular, unique solar system (a performance) by choosing a planet/scene which is the smallest, fastest and nearest to the sun from one opera, a middle-range planet/scene with its moons and satellites from another opera, and choosing a large and remote planet/scene from a third opera. Considering how many planets (scenes) are in each of the three systems, you can make up a large number of unique performances for any occasion.
In the three solar systems, the most distant planets (maybe of uncertain origin and uncertain composition) are not particularly related to the “themes” of the three operas (as expressed in the more complicated “core” scenes). These most distant planets are about the social worlds of the three men.
The Etchings / Max
“The Etchings” is the longest scene (the most distant planet) in the opera “Max.” “The Etchings” is a dialogue between male and female voices, in which two pages of the collage-novel Une Semaine de Bonté by Max Ernst are described as accurately as I can describe them in words. The collage-novel, 226 pages, is made up of images – we would call them semi-pornographic now – cut from German tabloid newspapers probably around 1934 (the year of publication of the collage-novel) and pasted onto pages of the artist’s notebook. Except for epigraphs designating the days of the week (two of which are quoted in the song), the collage-novel is without words. The dialogue of “The Etchings” was written in the spirit of the collage-novel.
Empire / Willard
The “Empire” story is an allegorical telling of the founding of one of the great multinational corporations. The story was told to me by the scion of the family of that corporation. I have changed the names (and the product) to protect the privacy of the source. And I have deliberately made the metaphor (soup) more casual and humorous than the actuality of corporate America. Because the corporation was founded in the years of the Great Depression, I have tried to evoke that era by references to the “extra man”; that is, one of the unemployed and homeless men who drifted across the country in railroad boxcars, trying to find a home and a life.
Younger members of the audience may be puzzled by the notion of homelessness and despair not associated with urban life. But the time of the “extra man” is true and was a desperate time in the making of America.
Au Pair / Bud
The “Au Pair” stories were written by Jacqueline Humbert and edited with chorus interjections by Robert Ashley and Jacqueline Humbert. An au pair is a young foreign girl hired by an American family to take care of the kids. Some of Jacqueline Humbert’s “Au Pair” stories are literally true. The others are almost true or could be true. The au pairs are still in action today.
I should say, with respect to the Au Pair stories, that the “Bud” in the title of the opera is Bud Powell, the great African-American pianist-composer, who like “Max” (Ernst) and “Willard” (Reynolds) was very important as an inspiration to me as a young man. But I was determined that I would not write anything involving the differences between my white American world and Bud Powell’s black American world. And I would not write an African-American story. But, too, I wanted a story that told about a situation in which people living and working together were “separated” in a profound way by their understanding of what the world they were in together meant and how it worked. When Jacqueline Humbert started telling me some of the “Au Pair” stories (she was living in a place where there were a lot of au pairs) I thought this could be a perfect solution: the au pairs have one idea about what is going on and their employers have another. – RA