Strange Fellowe: Act I Follow-up, Part 1

posted by Hitomi Oba, composer

photo by Ashley-Nicole Grosse

photo by Ashley-Nicole Grosse

The staging of Act 1 of “Strange Fellowe” has come and gone, and a follow-up blog entry seems long overdue – but this past month has given us a healthy amount of time to reflect individually, amongst ourselves, and with the people with whom we shared the as we take our next steps forward with this work.

Nick and I have repeatedly agreed that the week of workshopping was one of the BEST WEEKS EVER!!!  Having the opportunity to completely dive into this long-developed work for a full week was at once gratifying and deliciously challenging.  Not only did we watch it come alive, but we also came face to face with a variety of questions in the work, many of which we were discovering for the first time.

And being able to work for a short but uninterrupted period of time with a team of extremely imaginative, enthusiastic, and professional artists in different fields was precisely the kind of stimulating, positive, and substantial interactions that we in the creative professions crave.  The interpretations, discussions, and actions we shared with the other artists were eye-opening.

As much as I would have liked to have sat in the audience and experienced the piece unfold in front of me, I was nonetheless able come away with an equally as immersive, however different, experience of being able to work as a performer in the production.

photo by Andrew Russell

Jazz artists most often adopt stage presences centered on the performance of music alone; they always look as though they are about to, in the middle of, or have just finished playing their instruments.  In this production, however, the musicians were a part of the scene, features of the landscape of this world we created upon the stage, and thus were expected to adapt to this environment – even blend in.

My impression is that in the beginning, the musicians (myself included), were a bit unsure of how to conduct ourselves, particularly when we were not playing our instruments.  But as we ran through the act over and over, we became familiar with the world, the pace, and our roles, and we slowly melted into this imagined world.

photo by Ashley-Nicole Grosse

photo by Ashley-Nicole Grosse

This engrossing “world” contributed to other concepts that set the piece apart from a typical jazz performance.  In my jazz performances, I strive to create a world and perhaps a certain sense of flowing time through the music.  But I recall being much more conscious of this effect within “Strange Fellowe.”  Instead of the audience focusing on the sounds we made, they experienced the larger world that we were a part of – a world created collaboratively by all involved, including the director, librettist, actors, lighting designer, video designer, and set/costume designers.

Strange Fellowe - Kristolyn, the Bellowes, and Band

photo by Andrew Russell

Interestingly, when I was composing the music, I was very conscious of the vibes and effects that the music would evoke, as that was arguably one of its most important functions in a work like this.  However, the experience of releasing and projecting that music into the world as a performer allowed me to be an active part of that profound moment.

I could go on and on about the great things we discovered and created, the wonderful people we had the fortune to work with, and the next steps we’re taking on this “Strange” path, but I would like to leave room for insights from Nick and Jerome…

I wish that I could enjoy weeks like this every week of every month.  Except, of course, with some minor improvements such as remembering to eat and sleep.  Of course, the more exciting a project is, the worse those two functions usually suffer.  And at this point, I’m most definitely more excited than ever as we move forward with “Strange Fellowe!”

Strange Fellowe: Beginnings

posted by Jerome Parker, playwright and librettist

Four years ago seems like yesterday because that’s how time flies.  But it was about that amount of time ago when we met in one of UCLA’s courtyards to talk about jazz and opera.  This was our second official meeting.

Our first encounter happened as I ventured outside of the theater department’s buildings and landed in the music department to learn about scoring for films.  Truth be told, I had no business being there and was the only theater student.  I went there because I was looking for a collaborator.  I knew that my future in theater and in media included a future in the musical world as well so I wanted to meet other like-minded artists who were open to theater.

Hitomi and I locked eyes.  I told her about my interest in writing a musical about Billy Strayhorn.  To my surprise, she knew who he was.  She told me about a class on Duke Ellington, taught by Kenny Burrell, and about an opera – a jazz opera – she was co-composing.

Opera?!  Of course, opera!

Hitomi quickly introduced me to Nick.   Over the next weeks we grew to know one another’s work.  They came to my readings and shows – and I was introduced to their music.  Four years later, here we are – and still collaborating – and proud to present the first public workshop of the first act of Strange Fellow: a jazz opera.

Though back to that second official meeting –

In the Los Angeles sun, at the table, they handed me a sketched treatment of Talas and his journey.  On the back of that treatment was this poem, by Walter de la Mare:

“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grass
Of the forest’s ferny floor;
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
“Is there anybody there?” he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:–
“Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,” he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone. 

It was my first time with the poem and it left a great impression.  Though the most lasting impression, one that stays with me until this day, was the piece of music that they shared with me, composed by Hitomi:

Suddenly Talas began to take shape for me as a writer – thanks to the great music by Nick and Hitomi – and his worlds started to come into focus.

We knew he was special, but we didn’t find out that Talas was a ghost until we dove into the poetry of Walter de la Mare.

De la Mare was an English poet who wrote during World War I.  Subsequently his work is a mix of the darkness that comes with war as well as the innocence that we want to preserve during desperate times.   The characters in our opera are all found in his massive collection of poetry that haunts and gives hope.   And most of the songs are composed from his poetry.

The biggest challenge, so far, in writing this strange, mysterious and beautiful book to the opera is balancing the heightened language of Walter de la Mare with my duty as storyteller for our modern audiences.  By having the characters drop perfect rhyming during the few dialogue scenes – I hope to give the audience a place to rest aurally and a chance to invest and get wrapped up in the love story between our hero and heroine.

Another challenge has been the process of collaboration itself.  Recently we added a director to our mix, and already the conversations have deepened – the music has grown and come together  – and the story and characters are tighter.   Because we all want the best for SF – we will be fine-tuning Act One all the way to the minute we debut in October in front of an audience, and subsequently fine-tuning the Acts that follow.  And it only took us four short years 😉 to begin to share our jazz opera with you.

We look forward to giving our audiences a new experience in jazz – a new experience in opera – a new experience in theater… all born from a couple of meetings where creative and like minds and hearts sat around a table to discuss the possibilities of bringing more jazz to opera’s form.

JP