How diverse are the offerings at this summer's Lincoln Center Festival? Without breaking a sweat you'll be able to catch up on traditional Beijing opera and modern Israeli dance, 19th-century Russian opera and contemporary American theater, Brazilian pop music and Korean shamanistic ritual.
The next logical question would be, how closely are they connected? Just as in previous Festivals, where disparate strands became more tightly entwined once you looked beneath the surface, this year's programming reveals quite a few thematic links, starting with the stories themselves. Say you want an Italian Macbeth. This year's festival offers a choice of operatic perspectives from both the 19th and 21st centuries, with the Kirov Opera's acclaimed Verdi classic, as well as the North American premiere of Salvatore Sciarrino's contemporary version, which pays homage to Verdi. (There will also be a free concert of Sciarrino's chamber music by the New Juilliard Ensemble that includes two U.S. premieres.)
Looking for relevance in ancient tradition? Director Chen Shi-Zheng stages the 13th-century Chinese tale The Orphan of Zhao both in a Beijing opera version (reuniting Chen with six actors and two musicians from the Festival's 1999 production of Peony Pavilion) and in a contemporary Western interpretation by playwright David Greenspan with music by Stephin Merritt. By distilling Macbeth and Zhao to their essence, you find thematic links between the two that involve violence and family honor‹two of the driving forces also present in the Itim Theatre Ensemble's production of Mythos, a Hebrew translation of Aeschylus's Oresteia, which, not incidentally, sets up parallels between ancient Greece and the Middle East today.
"These productions make up a kind of 'Cycle of Revenge,'" says Festival director Nigel Redden. "From there, we have a few spiritual pieces, because I think it's important not only to look at where things come from, but to see how they end up. When one thinks of revenge, the next aspect is how to transcend it."
Chief among those spiritual works is acclaimed theater director Deborah Warner's The Angel Project, a site-specific performance installation that takes audience members one by one through various locations throughout Manhattan to look at familiar vistas from a new perspective. A much different spiritual experience comes from shaman Kim Keum-hwa, who presents Daedong Gut, an extended ceremony reenacting ancient Korean religious rituals. That will be followed by five successive evenings of Pansori, traditional Korean epic tales performed by a singer-storyteller and a drummer. Although seven of the original 12 pansoris have disappeared over time, the remaining five will be performed by the acknowledged living master of each story.
Getting from ancient Korea to 19th-century Russia makes for an interesting ride, but Redden sees connections between pansori and the Kirov Opera. In addition to its production of Verdi's Macbeth, the resident force of St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre celebrates, with conductor Valery Gergiev, the 300th anniversary of its hometown with rare epics by the great St. Petersburg composers. Included are Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina, Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, the American premiere of Prokofiev's Semyon Kotko, and the first uncut American performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh. "The pansori was once the epitome‹the entire musical definition, in fact‹of what it meant to be Korean," says Redden. "You can easily compare this to the 19th-century Russians, who were also trying to define themselves musically. I find these parallels a fascinating way to consider what it is to define an entire culture in music. In America, we're still trying to determine what is truly American, beyond merely an amalgamation of other influences."
As for showcasing the American amalgamation, that responsibility falls partly on the Festival's dance offerings. The Dance Theatre of Harlem will make its first appearance at the Festival (and its first season at Lincoln Center since 1994 at the Met) with the world premiere of Michael Smuin's St. Louis Woman to music by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. And the Batsheva Dance Company, Israel's premier modern dance company, which American dance icon Martha Graham co-founded with the philanthropist Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild, comes to New York with Anaphaza. One of the company's signature works, Anaphaza juxtaposes traditional Hebrew songs with pulsing rock music.
More broad stylistic fusions come with Shen Wei Dance Arts, whose founding choreographer, Hunan-born, New York-based Shen Wei, merges his training in Beijing opera and Chinese painting with modern dance. The young company makes its New York debut with The Rite of Spring, which has a live and pre-recorded piano score for four hands performed by Fazil Say, and Folding, which finds a contemplative space between Tibetan Mahakala Buddhist chant and the music of John Tavener.
Ensemble Modern, which plays in the pit for Sciarrino's Macbeth, also offers Eislermaterial, a multimedia composition by Heiner Goebbels that deconstructs the political, social, and artistic conflict of the German-Jewish composer Hanns Eisler. In conjunction with the Kirov's St. Petersburg opera tribute, The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) offers two separate Prokofiev marathon performances encompassing all nine of the composer's sonatas plus additional chamber works, featuring pianist Anne-Marie McDermott and CMS members with their resident ensemble, the Orion String Quartet. The Festival also offers a five-night miniseries of Brazilian music from the country's musically rich northeast sector. Performers will include singer-percussionist Carlinhos Brown, the percussion ensemble Lactomia and celebrated forro singer Vanildo de Pombos in their U.S. debuts, and percussion ensemble Timbalada in its New York debut, among other musicians from Bahia and Pernambuco.
"Whether you look at something from 2,500 years ago or from last week, these productions are all about contemporary issues," says Redden. "A piece written in China 700 years ago can remind us of the most important things to remember in life. I think it's tremendously worthwhile to see grand opera and shamanistic ritual under the same umbrella. I'm not necessarily suggesting that all these traditions have artistic connections, but they do have human connections. And it's always important to look at life from a variety of experiences and points of view‹especially at the places you wouldn't usually consider."
Ken Smith writes about music for Gramophone and The Newark Star-Ledger, among other publications.