For reasons both aesthetic and financial, a number of 21st-century opera composers are leaving fantastic visions of Zeffirelli productions behind. Instead, they are focusing on creating penetrating stage shows that draw on the versatile talents of smaller ensembles which encompase a range of performance disciplines. Audience reaction to their work has shown that you can indeed take the elephant and all three tons of scenery off the stage and still capture ears and eyes with piercing effect.
Among this slice of operatic visionaries is Seattle-based composer and sometimes-librettist Garrett Fisher. Deeply influenced by Asian and Middle Eastern timbres and acting styles, Fisher has created nearly a dozen mixed-media stage shows which integrate his own myriad influences along with those of his many collaborators. Under the umbrella of The Fisher Ensemble, the performers have staged productions that fluidly incorporate dancers and mask-makers, film and recorded sound, and instruments that span the globe.
Fisher says success in this situation requires more than the technical talents of the artists. “The performers have to be able to be very spontaneous. They have to be trained singers or musicians, but they also have to be able to sort of break from the tradition in terms of repeating what’s on the page and feel free to try out new things.”
It’s a way of working, however, that also requires a particular openness on the part of the composer once the initial composition is given over to the performers. “When it’s not [a mistake] and they’re just really trying something new, the control freak inside of me wants to reach out and slap them, but then the other part of me is like, wait, that was pretty cool,” Fisher explains. “They usually get so inside the part and they’re so talented that they somehow pull it off.”
The perfect entry point into The Fisher Ensemble’s work perhaps comes through Fisher’s The Passion of Saint Thomas More, first presented in 1995. Rather than a literal telling of events—More refused to sanction Henry VIII’s denial of the authority of the Pope and was beheaded for high treason—Fisher’s one-hour long piece forgoes the hows and whys and instead serves more as a post-minimalist and ritualistic meditation on the final hours of More’s life. “What I’m really interested in,” Fisher says, “and what I have always been interested in is where a narrative coincides with music. And the way I approach it is not necessarily the traditionally operatic way where you have a story you’re telling and then here’s a leitmotif that fits with this character and in Act 3 such-and-such happens. I’m more interested in the structure of an overall musical progression or an idea that develops, and how that kind of parallels or works with the storyline.”
The ensemble has continued to refine that structural pairing, and a critically-praised recording was released on the BIS label out of Sweden in 2001. Though Fisher says the recording can be viewed as an ideal version of the piece, the show really must be seen to be fully appreciated. The singers each wear a striking headpiece (see photo at left) designed by Louise McCagg and incorporate stylized movement to express the inner emotions of their characters. The combined effect reinforces the internal focus of the material. Fisher hopes this allows the listener to see the piece “as a large meditation, in a way. It’s very dramatic; it’s not like a meditation where you’re sitting in a corner like a Zen monk or something, but it’s the type where you’re kind of immersed in this question and the music takes you different places.”
To achieve that, a literal play-by-play is not the point. “For me what I find really attractive about a story like that is that simple conflict, the choice, what it comes down to: the line that’s drawn. Do you cross it? Do you not? And what I hope is that, because it’s so simple, that it will offer the audience the chance to kind of fill in the blanks.”