Text: Dan Harder
the passion of opera
the sizzle of pop
the guilty pleasure of daytime TVPremiere:
14 November 2008
Eisa Davis, female vocalist; Manoel Feliciano, male vocalist
Oakland East Bay Symphony/Michael Morgan
1. Coming together/coming apart
2. IfComposer note:Zipperz
tells the story of a love affair from two different perspectives at the same time. It’s a little like holding a telephone to each ear while two friends tell you about their stormy relationship – to each other! It can be exhausting to find yourself in the middle of someone else’s soaPOPera, but it would be rude to hang up. You’re a captive audience, as it were (unless you have an aisle seat).
One of my favorite things about music is that it can say two things at once and have them both make sense. Real counterpoint – two or more parts that are completely independent and self-sufficient but together form a harmonious whole, as in Bach’s brilliant two-part Inventions
- is something I had never encountered outside music until Dan Harder sent me some of his “zipper” poems. There’s one poem on the left side of the page and one poem on the right. You can read the poems separately or, by alternating sides, you can zip both poems together to form one large poem that somehow fuses these two (sometimes contradictory) narratives. I couldn’t resist the temptation and soon afterwards suggested to Dan that we create something together that would marry his counterpoint with mine.
The most important thing to me, in writing Zipperz
, was to create a musical drama that would tell our story, and illuminate Dan’s poetry, in a way the audience could experience without reading. Poetry is about the music inherent in words as well as their layers of meaning, and opera, much as I love it, is not the best medium for someone whose priority is language (hence the need for supertitles, even in English). I found the solution unexpectedly on a trip to see my friend Manoel in New York. He was performing the role of Tobias (for which he received a Tony nomination) in John Doyle’s stripped-down revival of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd
- and singing his own pop songs to sold-out crowds on his nights off. I decided this was what I needed, someone whose command of language and theater was equal to his gorgeous voice – and it didn’t hurt that he was driving throngs of groupies to distraction!
The decision to cast pop singers – Manoel immediately suggested the irresistible and multi-talented Eisa Davis as his romantic foil – completely changed my conception of the piece. Suddenly the very classical practice of counterpoint was infused with the very unclassical sounds of passing car stereos and dance clubs. It was a natural shift for me. My wife and I go dancing at least once a month, anything from ballroom to Latin (both of which have found their way into this piece) but lately our favorite is “Bootie Mash-up” at San Francisco’s DNA Lounge. Mash-up takes two or more pop songs and literally pits them against each other by very carefully lining up the beats. The results are named like boxing matches: Rihanna vs. General Public, Jay-Z vs. Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, the Rolling Stones vs. Queen vs. Nirvana. This is pop counterpoint on a grand scale and, for me, it can be a total mind-body experience that comes somewhere close to heaven.
The single greatest influence on my music is always the people I am writing for and Zipperz
is no exception. Michael Morgan has a natural flair for theater and I wanted to make him something big and brazen! Edwin Outwater, who will conduct the Canadian premiere, had requested a piece about sex, and I am only too happy to oblige. I spent countless hours listening to wonderful pop songs by Manoel and Eisa, both to learn their voices and to get a feel for how they combine words and music in their own compositions. Certain friends were especially on my mind while I was working on this piece: Mary (our model of the clubbing parent), Nicola and Robert, Andy and David. And finally, eclipsing all others, I wrote this piece for Jodi, my pop goddess: “Yes” is for you.
The age-old game of he said/she said gets a stylish updating in Zipperz, a nifty exercise in musical and verbal counterpoint that had its world premiere Friday night as part of the Oakland East Bay Symphony's season opener in the Paramount Theatre.
This concert duet, the work of composer Nathaniel Stookey and librettist Daniel Harder, traces a romantic affair through its requisite stages - first meeting, first date, desire, doubt, disillusionment, affirmation - all in the space of 40 minutes. There's even time for him to put off calling her and for her to resent it.
If that description sounds a little generic, that's because Stookey and Harder aren't much more interested in their nameless and uncharacterized protagonists than their audience is. What gets them, and us, going is the formal arabesques of the characters' intertwining dialogue.
The impetus for Zipperz was Harder's development of what he calls "zipper poems," texts in which two strings of words proceed down the page in separate but interlocked streams. Reading each strand separately produces something different from reading them together.
It's easy to understand why Stookey might have been excited by the contrapuntal possibilities of the form, although the perennial struggle for dominance between words and music would seem to be an obvious danger. The more explicitly the piece showcases its literary structure, the more the score must take a backseat, and vice versa.
Fortunately, Stookey and Harder play well together, and the focus in Zipperz - whose subtitle, a "SoaPOPera" nicely captures its various overlaps - flows easily from words to music and back again. When the dialogue is flying fast between the two lovers, Stookey's score is content to highlight their parallel (and sometimes conflicting) impressions.
But when the score needs to conjure up a mood or overall image, Stookey responds with diverse, stylistically apt inventions. He peppers the piece with dance numbers, pop ballads and terse little melodic interchanges, and his ability to maneuver interwoven snippets of text is remarkable.
Even the self-referential jokes, which could easily have seemed precious, tend to work. During their date, when he says, "The music is angular," and she counters with, "The music is spherical," the score shifts rapidly to mirror their different perceptions. And the most infectious laugh line - when Stookey gets the orchestra to impersonate the technological sounds of a cell-phone call - brought the house down.
Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle, 17/11/2008
The hot romance aspect of the program was provided by Bay Area composer Nathaniel Stookey with the world premiere of his Zipperz: A soaPOPera> to a libretto by another Bay Area resident, poet Dan Harder.
Both creators definitely think outside the box. Can you imagine a thoroughly 21st century romance between a gorgeous girl and comely guy, assayed and enacted via the musical methodology of 17th century counterpoint — as in a J.S. Bach fugue?
Well, Stookey and Harder made it happen by directing two youthful, attractive singer/actors — Eisa Davis and Manoel Felciano — to stand facing each other on both sides of Morgan. Both Broadway pop singers with plenty of professional stage performances to their credit were hooked up to microphones. Unfortunately, there were neither supertitles projected over the stage nor a libretto provided in the program notes.
The compositional format of the work is in two acts, with "Meeting," "Waiting" and "Dating" sections comprising Act 1 and "Coming together/Coming apart" and "If" making up Act 2.
Davis, a magnificent singing actress with a beautiful, expressive voice and superlative diction, sang the girl's point of view as she contemplated the attractive hunk across the room. Her words embodied one half of the "zipper."
Felciano, a sensitive 21st century guy with a suave voice, gave empathetic expression to the male's thoughts — the other side of the zipper. While not quite explicit, the words are indeed, suggestive: They're about to conjoin — to zip together. Rhythms driven by thrusts from cellos and double basses suggested accelerating heartbeats and movement. Massed strings combined to build fast-breathing tension, finally culminating in a breathless, consuming climax.
Then — silence. Finally, Davis intoned a single word: "Wow."
Cheryl North, Contra Costa Times, 17/11/2008