Literature can sometimes seem the loneliest of the arts. Today's book clubs and reading circuits suggest but a faint echo of the long-vanished origins of storytelling as a shared social event. But we tend to experience the real "performance" of a novel or poem in that most private of theaters: our own imaginations.
So what happens if we take a fresh look at powerful literary figures through the lens of live performance? That's the question lurking behind this season's variation on the innovative New Visions series produced by Lincoln Center. This new undertaking, titled The Literary Muse, is built around the intriguing dialogues of four prominent figures in the performing arts: early music maestro Jordi Savall, experimental directors Katie Mitchell and Peter Sellars, and the widely hailed choreographer Mark Morris: as they engage with literary icons, both classic (Cervantes and Shakespeare) and modern (Virginia Woolf and Franz Kafka).
"The goal of The Literary Muse is similar to what we've been doing with the New Visions series in past seasons, where we consider classical music from within a different performance context," explains Jon Nakagawa, Producer of Contemporary Programming for Lincoln Center. "We realized that where literature intersects with performance is something we should explore as well. The focal point is the intersection of genres."
By a happy coincidence, opera: that great mingler of the arts: was being invented just around the time that Miguel de Cervantes began dreaming up his masterpiece about the "ingenious gentleman of La Mancha." While Don Quixote is celebrated as the fountainhead of another new genre, the modern novel, Jordi Savall uncovers a whole new dimension to the work by exploring its deep-rooted connections to the music of Cervantes' time.
A charismatic reviver of neglected early music, Savall brings his instrumental ensemble Hesprion XXI to the Rose Theater for two related programs (Oct 20 and 21). The first, weaving together musical references embedded in Don Quixote, will be a New York premiere, the result of years of inspired research that also led to a highly acclaimed recording project in 2005 by Savall and his musicians on the Alia Vox label. Also participating in that performance will be soprano Montserrat Figueras, actor F. Murray Abraham, and the vocal group La Capella Reial de Catalunya.
The second evening will be devoted to the various dance idioms Cervantes would have known, many of which he describes in Don Quixote. Savall sees the fertility of new dance forms appearing at the time: combining Spanish, African, and Native American elements: as "probably the result of contact with the New World."
"It's difficult to find another book in all literary history which has so many direct references to music," Savall says, pointing out how ballads and romances are not only quoted outright but integrated into the text's fabric. "The melodies to these lyrics were well-known to contemporaries who read the book. Don Quixote is a story with a soundtrack from the music of the time, but when we read the novel today, it has become mute: like seeing a movie without the music."
Savall's restored Quixote "soundtrack" alternates recitation of relevant excerpts with an astonishing variety of musical instruments and sources. These range from improvisation on tunes preserved in oral tradition to pieces by great composers of the era and imaginative reconstructions of music appropriate for a particular scene (a moving Requiem passage, for example, to accompany the knight's funeral). Overall, Savall believes this musical dimension adds an element of tragic pathos to the ridiculous figure of parody that Don Quixote tends to conjure.
Cervantes may have mapped out the novel as we know it, but Virginia Woolf headed into an uncharted sea with The Waves. This most radical of her novels has inspired Katie Mitchell, the energetic associate director at London's National Theatre, to a new departure with her collaborative theater piece Waves, which receives its U.S. premiere in November. "Waves is a big leap away from the sort of fourth-wall realism of my earlier work into a new way of thinking about theater," says Mitchell. "We intentionally picked a text which is impossible to do using normal theatrical rules. There's no plot; it's just thoughts inside the heads of six characters."
Woolf's weave of ongoing interior monologues: she referred to it as a "play-poem": prompted Mitchell to devise an intimate counterpoint of video and sound, with each character represented by four separate actors embodying a particular aspect: the voicing of thoughts, facial expressions, hand gestures, and foley sounds (i.e., effects such as chewing or the rustling of clothes): if we were on the set of a film while it is being created.
For the sound design, Paul Clark (a frequent collaborator) composed a score for string quartet, taking a cue from the fact that Woolf was listening intensely to late Beethoven while writing The Waves. This prerecorded music "plays what would be the traditional role of the film score," Mitchell says. "On top of that is a layer of abstract sound, the foley sound, and the voiceovers, all mixed live and forming a dense aural tapestry."
Video is used, Mitchell explains, as more than "a scenic backdrop" and becomes integral. "All the video is created live in front of the audience. It's like watching a live film shoot and the edited output simultaneously. You have a very polished film account put on the screen and a chaotic, messy, fragmented construction of it on the stage. The meaning of the evening's entertainment lies in looking between the two."
Another sort of reading between the lines is the challenge director Peter Sellars set himself in staging Kafka Fragments, which was premiered at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall in 2005 and will be revived on November 12 and 14 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater. Its source is a 1986 work by contemporary Hungarian composer Gy‹rgy Kurtšg. Discovering a soul mate in Kafka, Kurtšg culled brief texts from his notebooks, diaries, and letters: from imagistic snapshots ("The onlookers freeze as the train goes past") to mini-parables: and set them for soprano and violin (to be performed by Dawn Upshaw and Geoff Nuttall). Sellars locates an astonishing theatricality in the intersection of the everyday with the fantastic which Kafka witnesses, as well as in the interplay of the two musicians.
The Literary Muse concludes next May with a twist on a familiar score as Mark Morris and his company perform their new ballet Romeo & Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare. For its first incarnation (never performed), Prokofiev had devised a "happy ending" simply by altering the timing of Romeo's return in the tomb scene. The reason, according to the composer, was choreographic, since "living people can dance, but the dying can't do it so easily prone." This version, made available only with the recent unsealing of the composer's archives, involves a more intimate orchestration and includes six hitherto unknown numbers.
One of the most interesting results of Lincoln Center's New Visions programs, according to Nakagawa, is what happens when "different layers of audience" are drawn together as part of the mix. "Not only is what happens onstage collaboration between genres, but you're getting a novel experience when audiences who are not used to seeing each other intersect as well."
Thomas May writes frequently about the arts.