Music crosses gender boundaries in new opera

By Nicholas Baer

“The sound of a human voice—the simplest thing to find but the hardest to hold onto.” So sings a lonely, forest-dwelling woman in the first of two one-act operas that comprise the new collaboration between composer Philip Glass and librettist David Henry Hwang. One of only four characters in this minimalist opera (collectively titled The Sound of a Voice and playing until November 2 at the Court Theatre), the woman introduces its central theme: the inability of men and women to form intimate relationships in a society with strict gender roles and moral codes.

The first short opera, itself titled “The Sound of a Voice,” centers on the interactions between Hanako (played by Herbert Perry), a man traveling in the woods, and the anonymous, forest-dwelling woman (Suzan Hanson), who offers him food and shelter on his journey. The woman keeps sacred a bouquet of flowers left by past visitors; these flowers remind her of people from whom she is secluded, and later become associated with the woman’s playing of the shakuhashi, a type of bamboo flute. Hanako begins breathing heavily when he hears her play, and in a fit of passion, he destroys one of her flowers. When Hanako encourages her to play louder, she responds, “I’m very shy about it…I play for my own satisfaction. That’s all.”

This short opera culminates in tragedy when the traditional gender roles of Hanako and the woman are reversed. Initially, Hanako chops wood and practices his swordplay while the domestic woman plays her shakuhashi, cooks, and cleans; later, the woman asks Hanako to help her clean a stain and he teaches her how to use a sword. She fears crossing the boundary of society’s established female role and when an accident occurs, elements of the moral code of the samurai (relating to society’s assumed male role) lead Hanako into shame and dishonor, a fate to which suicide is preferable.

In its combination of music, primitive people, and defined gender roles, the first opera brings to mind Jane Campion’s film The Piano. Like that film, this short opera involves a primitive man who finds a submissive woman’s inner voice in her music, through which she expresses her emotions, as well as her sexuality. While Holly Hunter’s mute character used her piano as a mode of expression, the lonely, arboreal woman sings that “the shakuhashi became my secret weapon…it kept me from choking on many a silent evening,” as it replicates the sound of a human voice. Finally, both Campion’s film and the first act of Glass’s opera end in tragedy, which occurs when characters react violently to the disregarding of the gender roles that society has ingrained into their psyches.

The second of the two one-act operas, entitled “Hotel of Dreams,” continues to emphasize the themes of power dynamics, hospitality, and societal gender roles. This opera—much more melancholy than the first—begins when Yamamoto (Eugene Perry), a 72-year-old widower, enters a bordello in Tokyo where old men come to sleep in the presence of young, virginal girls. Interested in this operation both as a reporter and as an insomniac, Yamamoto is greeted by Michiko (Janice Felty), an elderly woman who runs the bordello, with these lyrics: “You mustn’t do anything distasteful. All my guests are gentlemen. Scratch most men, and you will find a molester.” Michiko informs Yamamoto that the old male guests sleep much better in the presence of the beautiful, naked girls who never open their eyes. To this, Yamamoto sings that “old men’s despair” derives from “such a modest reward”: sleep. He and Michiko eventually form a relationship based on their similar ages, yet tragedy inevitably ensues, as society’s defined gender roles prevent the two from forming a lasting, intimate relationship.

Perhaps the most startling elements of this new collaboration between Glass and Hwang are its juxtapositions. Within the two short operas, ancient Eastern myths cross with what Hwang calls “literary modernism.” Although both short operas are set in Japan, the universality of their themes allows them to transcend both time and place. Philip Glass’s trademark minimalist music is given new dimension when mixed with the grand emotion of opera; in this case, the fusion involves a personal, chamber music-like ensemble of four musicians and two singers in both acts. Glass’s music mixes Western instruments, such as the cello, flute, and piccolo, with the Eastern pipa, bamboo flute, and percussion instruments.

The entire production, directed by Robert Woodruff, manages to work splendidly, despite its curious juxtapositions. The four performers, all of different ethnicities, have strong, beautiful voices, and are theatrical without being flagrantly histrionic. Glass’ beautiful music is able to imitate the intensity of the characters’ actions and emulate their innermost feelings. The art deco, minimalist set designs of Robert Israel are understated yet establish a specific scene and create a sense of timelessness in the plot. Hwang’s English-language lyrics are eloquent without drawing attention to themselves.

As a culmination of worldly sensibilities and world-class talents, the opera manages to be universal in theme and curiously affecting on a level that is vitally contemporary.