Blind Witness: Three America Operas by Ben Yarmolinsky and Charles Bernstein
These three videos were made of the Blind Witness trilogy at the time of the original productions in the 1990s. They are available now for the first time, thanks to PennSound. PennSound's Ben Yarmolinsky page also has audio tracks for all the operas as well as video and audio of subsequent performances. Just below the videos is Yarmolinksy's introduction to the Facorty School book.
Blind Witness News (1990)
This is a promo/excerpt produced and directed by Grethe Holby, from the original production in December 1990.
Rondi Charlston - soprano, James Javore - baritone, Suzanna Guzman - mezzo, Lynn Randolph - tenor. Elizabeth Rodgers and Steve Tyler played synthesizers; Robert Black conducted.
Allan Kozinn reviewed the show for The New York Times
The Subject (1991)
Jenny Midnight, The Subject — Carla Wood, mezzo-soprano
Dr. Boris Frame, Psychoanalyst — Stephen Kalm, baritone
- Prof. Daemon Dudley, Director of Social Correction, Center for Normalcy — Thomas Bogdan, tenor
- Piano — Elizabeth Rogers
- Video: Andrew Reichsman
The Lenny Paschen Show (1992)
- Lenny Paschen — Larry Adams, baritone
- Monica Moolah — Darynn Zimmersoprano
- Paul Evangeline — Jeff Reynolds, tenor
- Maria Aquavita — Jane Shaulis, mezzo-soprano
- conducted by John Yaffé
For the Factory School book, Ben Yarmolinsky wrote this preface:
At the end of the summer of 1990, I received a call from Grethe Holby, the artistic director of American Opera Projects. She asked me if I would be interested in writing a new opera. The previous spring I had submitted a cassette of songs to AOP in response to an advertisement, and apparently they liked what they heard. I said that I would be thrilled to write a new opera, and began to think about a subject. Since my early twenties I had toyed with the idea of writing a musical theater piece based on a television news broadcast, and I suggested that as the theme. She accepted.
The next question was who would write the libretto. With only about three months until the scheduled performance, I thought I’d better farm the job out. I remembered the name of Charles Bernstein. The summer before in Tangier, my friend Rodrigo Rey Rosa had mentioned him to me as the leader of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry movement—a movement about which I knew nothing. Still, it sounded intriguing, and I knew that Charles lived in New York. So, I looked up all the Charles Bernsteins in the phone book and hit on the right one after a few tries.
Charles was immediately receptive to the idea of writing the libretto and we met a few days later to talk it over. By the end of our first meeting we had decided on a cast of four singers: Jack James & Jill Johns — anchorman and woman respectively, Jane Jones — weatherwoman, and John Jacks — sportscaster. We also decided on a four-part format of International News, Local News, Weather and Sports. My original title for the piece was “News Songs,” but Charles felt that this title was — in his words — “too bland.” I deferred to his judgment.
The first part that I composed was Jill’s aria “Against the menace.” The words called forth a music that was operatic, dark, and expressive. The rest of the libretto elicited many different styles of music—so many that The New York Times critic called the score “wildly eclectic.”
Early on I decided to score the piece for two electric keyboards. There was no piano in the performance space, and I knew that I wanted a musical accompaniment that was primarily harmonic and rhythmic, but that had some variety of timbre.
The premiere of Blind Witness News took place on December 3, 1990, at the American Opera Project’s Blue Door Studio at 463 Broome Street in Soho. The cast included Rhondi Charlston, James Javore, Susanna Guzman, and Lynn Randolph. The late Robert Black conducted. Grethe Barrett Holby directed.
In December of 2005, Cantiamo Opera staged a revival of Blind Witness News. For these four performances Charles and I collaborated on a new segment based on the national news, including a new aria for the anchorman. I also revised the original score and arranged it for solo piano accompaniment. The performers were Deborah Karpel, Nathan Resika, Leandra Ramm, and Aram Tchobanian. Ishmael Wallace was the pianist/musical director.
In the summer of ’92, Charles and I embarked on a companion piece to Blind Witness News, again under the sponsorship of AOP and Holby. We both realized that the inevitable follow-up to an operatic parody of the evening news would have to be an operatic parody of a late night television talk show. Thus began The Lenny Paschen Show. The concept was that our host, Lenny, would be an outrageous comedian in the mold of Lenny Bruce, and that he would be giving his last performance—his show having been cancelled by the network. His guests would include three celebrity types: a young ambitious pop star, Monica Moolah, a country & western singer, Paul Evangeline, and an aging diva, Maria Aquavita. As with Blind Witness News, we would follow the format of our television model scrupulously, including theme music, announcer, opening monologue, commercial breaks, and so on. The content would be Charles’ typical mish-mash of sense and nonsense.
The libretto was done by June and I took it with me to Normandy and Paris where I worked on it in July and August and finished it in New York in the fall.
In an effort to make a score that sounded like television music, and, equally important, in an effort to save money, I scored the accompaniment for a synthesized band of saxophone, guitar, keyboard, bass, and percussion. The piece was performed to a prerecorded computer-generated accompaniment. The musical styles here are more consistent although there is still considerable variety. The prerecorded accompaniment demanded a very precise performance from the singers.
A staged reading of The Lenny Paschen Show took place in November of ’92, again produced by American Opera Projects at 463 Broome St. The cast included Larry Adams, Darryn Zimmer, Jeff Reynolds and Jane Shaulis. John Yaffé was the conductor. Holby directed.
The genesis of our second opera, The Subject, was different from that of the other two. Nobody asked for it. For some reason I decided that an opera based on a psychoanalytic session would be a bright idea. Just as in the news and talk show formats, a psychoanalytic session has a ticking clock and an inherent real-time structure. It may be filled with almost any verbal content. In discussing this idea Charles and I agreed that it would be a fifty-minute hour (this was before pychotherapists decided to make their sessions 45 minutes long), which would include the recounting of a dream, a scheduling duet, psychiatric advice, and other familiar set pieces.
In homage to Brecht and Weill we named our “subject” Jenny Midnight. Her analyst, a conventional Freudian, was named Dr. Boris Frame (of the Frame Institute). We also decided that there would be an intervention by a second psychiatrist of the non-Freudian, pharmacological and behaviorist persuasion, named Daemon Dudley, and that the two would fight over the analysand. Thus, the opera would become a sort of theater of ideas, in which the two doctors sing about their opposing philosophies.
The character of the music for The Subject is lyrical and intimate. It is scored for solo piano accompaniment.
This opera was composed in Normandy in the summer of 1991. Again, I finished the work in the fall in New York.
The premiere performance was given at a private home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in February of 1992. The role of Jenny Midnight was sung by Carla Wood, Boris Frame by Stephen Kalm, and Dr. Dudley by Tom Bogdan. Elizabeth Rodgers was the pianist. The City Opera of New York chose The Subject as an alternate for its Vox 2004 reading series, but the work was not performed by them.
These three operas (if they are operas) from the early 1990s represent my ideas about how contemporary American English ought to be sung. There is a consistent attempt in the text-setting to follow the rhythms and cadences of our language as it is spoken. Although I collaborated on the scenarios, suggested some verse forms, occasionally asked for slight changes to the original text, and sometimes asked for a second verse or a refrain, ultimately, the music was evoked by the words.