In a review of the Portland performances for The Oregonian entitled “Strong Work Makes a ‘PROMISE’ Fulfilled”, David Stabler wrote:
“PROMISE, an engaging new opera by Theresa Koon, considers the tormented journey of an artist going mad…The style is tonal and highly textured, by turns charming, jagged and haunting…Opera needs new works to refresh the art form, and “Promise” is exactly the kind that deserves a full production.”.
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Theresa Koon’s Promise Fulfills
By Sharon Mabry
Published by IAWM Journal Volume 12, No. 2 – 2006
The word “promise” can be used to mean several things. It can be a declaration that something will or will not be done, an indication of future virtuosity and distinction as in a singer shows promise, a reference to a pledge of some kind, or the expectation of an engagement, act, gift or stated outcome. Lastly, it is often used as an emphatic declaration (I won’t do that again, I promise you!). All of these usages appear, in some manner, in Theresa Koon’s new opera, Promise, about the sculptor Camille Claudel (1864-1943). This fascinating two-act, full-length opera was first work-shopped in February 2003 at the Nautilus Music Theatre in Minnesota, where the composer took part in the composer-librettist project Saturday Market/Sunday Opera under the leadership of Ben Krywosz. Since that time it has received excellent reviews for a semi-staged concert performance in Portland, Oregon (2004), and narrated concerts of excerpts at the National Opera Association National Conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan (2006) and Detroit Institute of Art (2006) as part of their Claudel/Rodin sculpture exhibit. At this writing, the work is being considered by several opera producers but has yet to receive a fully-staged world premiere.
The Oregon-based composer/librettist, Theresa Koon, has an extensive resume that includes degrees and training in voice, composition, improvisation and acting, as well as ballet. Her professional acting and singing credits show an unexpected and unique range of expertise in fields not always associated with composers. These experiences and skills have contributed to the fluency and security with which she creates the world of the much admired, despised and misunderstood Camille Claudel, the brilliant artist who showed much “promise” at an early age. Claudel became famous as a sculptor and infamous as the assistant, model, mistress and muse of Rodin, eventually succumbing to mental illness (destroying every new sculpture she created), and spending the last decades of her life in French mental institutions before dying in 1943.
The composer’s interest in the subject seems a rather prophetic merging of seemingly disconnected events. Koon’s father worked on the Marshall Plan after World War II, during which time, he and his family were housed in a mansion in the town of Chatou, outside Paris. Next-door was the family of Paul Claudel’s son, Henri Claudel. Theresa was not yet born, though her older siblings played with the Claudel children and the entire family developed a friendly relationship with the Claudels. During that time, Paul Claudel, who was a foreign diplomat, would visit his family. As Theresa Koon grew up, she heard stories about Paul, the famous writer, and his sister Camille, the inspired and esteemed sculptor.
Many years later, when Koon was in graduate school, she was reminded of all of those stories she heard as a child, when her friend, Christy Slovacek, introduced her to the film “Camille Claudel,” based on the life of the sculptor and her relationship with Rodin. Koon says the film immediately made her want to examine all of those stories that she had not pursued. So, curiosity took her to the Claudel sculptures, which broadened her fascination with Camille. Eventually, Koon reconnected with the Claudel family in France. They were most forthcoming with shared remembrances, personal letters and their own research about Camille. Koon was also given access to private materials at the Rodin museum in Paris. From this curiosity and research came insight, inspiration, craft, imagination and eloquence that united to bring forth an extraordinary, artistic operatic experience, resulting in Promise.
A number of questions arose from these encounters with the elusive Camille and those who knew her. Was she really insane, or a victim of a complicated commitment to Rodin? Did notoriety, responsibility to her art, or expectations of greatness cause her ultimate cessation of creativity? What are the subtle nuances and coincidences in life that bring “promise” to fruition? How much of the fulfillment of “promise” is fate? Is one obligated to express one’s talent if one has “promise”? What is the role of art in society? Is there a correlation between art and sanity? What subtleties of mind and spirit are connected to creativity? These are questions that all artists, their mentors and loved ones face when choosing a roadmap to help nurture a potentially great artist. Watching these ideas play out in Promise will give the audience much to think about concerning the development of talent and problems that arise when dealing with the innate sensitivity of the artist’s temperament.
This opera is not simply a biography of Camille. Koon did not focus on the intense, mercurial relationship between Camille and her mentor/lover Rodin, who was unwilling to marry her. Eventually, irreconcilable artistic and personal differences developed between them and Rodin felt threatened by her growing fame as a sculptor. Rather, Koon chose to delve into the questions about art and sanity, art and spirituality, and art in our society. Primarily, this is a story about love in all its forms, joys and disappointments; it serves as an enlightening work about Camille through a factual account of important relationships and events. However, the conversations between characters are imaginary, construed dialog that bring the characters to life.
The heart of this work concerns the relationship between Camille and her brother Paul. Members of the Claudel family called them “twin souls.” Both were fragile, creative spirits, forever tied. At the end of her life, Camille found mental, physical and spiritual peace. Those who were with her at the end of her life spoke of the joy that was seen in the light of her face during her final days. Paul was with her to the very end. Some believe that it is that bond between the two that prevented Camille from committing suicide. Near the end of the opera, Paul bets her to fight to live and she promises that she will. During the course of the opera, Paul comes to realize that he cannot take away her pain or save her; he can only love her. Once he stops trying to save her, Camille somehow reconnects with him and feels his love for her. This love transcends all of her suffering. She reaches out to comfort him and is able to love again. After having created and destroyed many sculptures, then becoming dormant for many years, she is suddenly able to create her final work, a sculpture of her brother’s face. It would be the only work she did not destroy from that period of her life.
Though Promise would be a marvelous showcase piece for semi-professional or professional opera companies, it is particularly suitable for college and conservatory opera training programs. These programs often have many more available women than men, creating problems when casting roles. Koon has written roles for five to ten women, depending on the casting of ensemble parts. The major roles are: Camille (soprano or mezzo), Louise (mezzo), Rose (mezzo), Paul (tenor), Rodin (baritone), and Louis-Prosper (baritone.) There is a Sculpture/Ensemble of four women and one man. This group can include Rose, Louise and Louis-Prosper if they are masked, and two sopranos. The instrumental ensemble consists of B-flat clarinet (doubling on B-flat bass clarinet, and soprano saxophone, if possible) violin, cello, and piano.
This opera with thirteen scenes, several segues and interludes, and considerable connecting dialog is beautifully constructed with arias, duets and ensemble pieces that depict Camille’s life, environs, relationships and emotional turmoil. The various segments proceed seamlessly as the small ensemble of instruments is used to connect dialog with music, voices with voices, and characters with dramatic import. Koon uses the small instrumental ensemble in dramatically creative ways: underpinning the dialog sections with a single clarinet or violin that becomes an audible character in response to what has been said by the actors; as a reflective instrumental duet during onstage dramatic pantomime; or as a flexible instrumental ensemble capable of projecting every nuance of the text from the barbed pointillism of animated gossip to the ardent and lush harmonies that portray strong emotion. This pristine and flexible ensemble of instruments becomes the thread that holds the work together. It can be delicate at one moment and overtly harsh and dramatic at another. The singing roles require strong actors able to project the subtleties of nuance in the dialog sections. There are gorgeous, soaring, inspiring arias and scenes for the characters to express anger, loss, fear, insecurities or joy in intimate and overtly dramatic situations. The inclusion of elements of dance, voice and theater in this opera are natural outgrowths of the composer’s multifaceted training and professional life. Camille’s emotional changeability is often projected through the voices of the sculptures as the audience is allowed to view Camille’s circumstances and feelings as she sculpts them.
Koon’s compositional style is basically tonal but shows an easy ability to become angular when needed to project an extreme emotional range. The effective instrumental writing is never excessive or intrusive upon the vocal lines. Rather, it completely and satisfyingly supports the strong and direct vocal writing. Promise is a work that will be intellectually and musically gratifying for both singers and instrumentalists. The composer’s innate ability to write fulfilling music for each character and instrument is apparent and will be appreciated by those who perform the work. Koon collaborated with composer/pianist Christy Slovacek on five of the pieces. She said, “For these I wrote the words, set them to melodies and rhythms, and sketched out the accompaniment atmosphere that I was hearing. Christy would take that and run with it, and then we’d send it back and forth for adjustments and alterations.” This must have been a very stimulating collaboration, bringing excellent results.
Opera is a fascinating medium and one that requires “good bones,” a fluency of musical and dramatic expression that arouses the sensibilities of a discerning audience and leaves them wanting to know more about the music and the characters presented during the performance. Without a firm structure and a clear, stimulating concept, an opera’s desired communication may be lost in a jumble of disconnected visual and musical details. Many works have foundered due to a less than eloquent vision. But it is the quality of the musical and dramatic components that is fundamental in raising an operatic contender above those that elude lasting distinction. Any composer who ventures to create a new opera not only faces immediate decisions concerning the aforementioned characteristics of a successful operatic production, but the additional problem of getting the work produced by a company or group of individuals capable of providing a suitable showcase for the composer’s efforts. It can be a very long process from initial compositional inspiration, networking of potential opera patrons, work-shopping and honing the piece to its most brilliant realization, producing satisfactory performances, and giving the piece time to become established and find its place in the repertoire.
Fortunately, for those who love opera and desire to experience new and provocative works, there are composers like Theresa Koon. This is an opera that deserves to be seen and heard. Its thought-provoking themes and memorable music will give listeners much to discuss and enjoy. It is a versatile work that can be done in concert version or as a fully-staged production. The latter would be more satisfying and would allow the fascinating Camille to come to life once again.
Sharon Mabry’s sensitive interpretation of traditional and contemporary music has placed her in demand as a recitalist, soloist with symphony orchestras and master teacher of vocal techniques. She has premiered works by more than 30 composers. Her critically acclaimed recordings have showcased works by contemporary and women composers. Mabry is professor of music at Austin Peay State University, having received the university’s highest award for creativity (Richard M. Hawkins Award) and for teaching (Distinguished Professor Award). Since 1985, she has been a featured writer for the Journal of Singing with her column “New Directions.” Her book Exploring Twentieth Century Vocal Music was published by Oxford University Press in 2002.