Invitation to the Opera: Noon at Dusk

Come see the chamber opera that I wrote with Stephen Lewis, premiering at the University of California, San Diego this May 11th, 13th, and 14th! Noon at Dusk was our first collaboration, and we look forward to many more. I could not have asked for a better creative partner in realizing my long-term dream of writing a libretto. Below is a narrative of our collaborative process and some highlights of the operatic text.

With the increasing value of the world of things proceeds in direct proportion the devaluation of the world of men. Labour produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity…. This fact expresses merely that the object which labour produces—labour’s product—confronts it [labour itself] as something alien, as a power independent of the producer.

– Karl Marx, “Estranged Labour”

The idea for the libretto of Noon at Dusk came about when Steve and I disagreed on the significance of Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. In the novel, a man’s brain has been technologically bifurcated to allow him to function as a secure human computer, processing large quantities of data in one part of his brain while keeping the data contents hidden from his consciousness. However, the technology is gradually killing him, and the novel takes extended trips into the man’s tormented mind. There, in a strangely mythical setting, a faceless human shadow embodies the man’s consciousness and willpower while the body to whom the shadow belongs retains only the man’s physical solidity in torpid, unthinking form.

Steve was quite taken by this bifurcation of a person into active shadow and inert body, and envisioned an abstract operatic plot built around interactions between shadows and bodies. I, on the other hand, had recently been swept away by the poeticism of Karl Marx’s “Estranged Labor,” and could not help but read the shadow/body storyline as a tragic commentary on the man’s alienation of a vital humanity within himself when he sacrificed part of his mind to the requirements of an employment opportunity. The libretto plot that Steve and I conceived together combines elements of both our readings. In Noon at Dusk, Annelise and Eliot are confronted by a seductive alien power that both stems from their own participation in the working world and also has a much larger life of its own. The consequences of this power manifest in the opera as the abstraction of the shadow, which becomes visibly realized by an updated version of the 19th-century silhouette maker, the physiognotrace. The not-quite-parallelism of Annelise and Eliot’s decisions and their respective relationships with Daniela and Lisha is inspired by the mirrored plotlines of Hard-Boiled Wonderland’s shadow/body world and the protagonist’s actual life, where both the shadow and the man were, to the last, hopeful of gaining a soulmate.

My crafting of the libretto was informed by my love for setting prose to music, sparked many years ago by the experience of singing in Vaughan Williams’ choral motet, “Valiant-for-Truth,” as an undergraduate soprano with the Oberlin College Choir. Eliot’s final aria, also the final scene of the opera, takes the form of a Spenserian sonnet. Finally, I cast three poems by nineteenth-century English poet, Christina Rossetti, as the emotional centerpieces of three different scenes in the opera. I say “finally” but these were really some of the first decisions I made in writing the libretto. Since I had never written a libretto before, and the world is not exactly replete with guidance on how to do such a thing, I used Rossetti as a muse to get myself writing each day. In the end, I found some of her poems so pitch-perfect, so lovely and touching in their simplicity and lyricism, that I decided to build particular scenes around them. That Rossetti’s poetry at times explored love for women made her work especially appealing to me for scenes between Annelise and Daniela. Furthermore, her verse had the uncanny quality of sounding both modern and antique at once, which I thought suited the nature of the social and personal dilemmas facing the two couples in our opera.