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Pascal Dusapin's Opera 'To Be Sung' At UCSD

A scene from UCSD's production of "To Be Sung."
By Clint Davis
A scene from UCSD's production of "To Be Sung."
Pascal Dusapin's Opera 'To Be Sung' At UCSD
This is not opera as we know it. French composer Pascal Dusapin's chamber opera "To Be Sung" combines new music with a Gertrude Stein text. The graduate students at UCSD's Department of Music perform an ambitious production of "To Be Sung" in the Conrad Prebys Concert Hall this week. We'll talk with the director, soprano Susan Narucki and members of the creative team.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. An opera that blends modern chamber music with the poetry of Gertrude Stein has its west coast premiere tonight in San Diego. The piece, called "To Be Sung" is by composer Pascal Dusapin, and it's described as a kaleidoscope of colors and textures for voice and instruments. The opera is being staged by a cast of graduate students at UC San Diego's Department of Music and presented at the Conrad Prebys Music Center. Here to tell us more about this ambitious project are my guests. Susan Narucki, she is a new music soprano and a professor of music at UCSD, and she is directing the chamber opera "To Be Sung." Susan, thank you for being here.

SUSAN NARUCKI (Professor of Music, University of California San Diego): Thank you so much for having us, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And Julian Pellicano is conducting “To Be Sung.” Julian, welcome.


JULIAN PELLICANO (Conductor): Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And Billieanne McLellan is a certified sign language interpreter who will interpret much of the opera’s performances. Billieanne, thanks for being here.

BILLIEANNE MCLELLAN (Sign Language Interpreter): Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Susan, “To Be Sung” is an opera that you know very well. Tell us a little bit about your history with “To Be Sung.”

NARUCKI: Sure. I was lucky enough to be part of the original cast in 1993. We produced it in Paris so I got to spend two and a half months in Paris working with the composer and with the team of stage directors. Part of the beauty of the piece was that it was originally produced in collaboration with James Terrell, the American artist, so we had a beautiful set and a fantastic ensemble to work with over a period of months.


CAVANAUGH: Now, this is – when we call this an opera and a chamber opera, what exactly does that mean?

NARUCKI: Well, it means that we’re using smaller forces for the orchestra. We have an ensemble of seven players, and the cast is just comprised of four singers and one male speaking voice, so it’s a smaller scale.

CAVANAUGH: Now the composer is Pascal Dusapin. What can you tell us about him?

NARUCKI: Well, he’s very tall and handsome.

CAVANAUGH: Very important information.

NARUCKI: Yes, very important information. He’s a wonderful composer. He has a beautiful sense of melodic line. Even though he’s writing in a modern musical language, he’s really interested in melody. He’s interested in orchestral color, vocal color. He’s so interested in the music of the renaissance and the baroque period that he actually named his song Juscan from Juscan Dupre. And you can really hear that in the way that he treats the orchestral music and the vocal lines.

CAVANAUGH: I’m interested, Julian, you’re conducting “To Be Sung.” Were you familiar with Dusapin’s work before you came to this project?

PELLICANO: I actually wasn’t familiar with his work. It’s my – It was my first time to really experience a piece of his, surprisingly, because he’s such a prolific composer and he’s written so many pieces. It was just my first time to encounter it as a performer.

CAVANAUGH: And what was that like? What was that like to sort of unravel this new composer and try to see into his mind and into his work?

PELLICANO: Well, you know, my first step was to just figure out who is he exactly and what has he done? And try and listen to some of his other music. And then my process is to always just go straight from the page and see what is a composer trying to say in this particular piece?

CAVANAUGH: What did you find meaningful about this work?

PELLICANO: About – Well, in this work in particular, I find that Dusapin is really creating soundscapes and what I find, I mean, on the musical level, to be particularly meaningful is the way that he really uses the instruments and the voice together to create such a detail of sound and in that way he puts himself right into the tradition of what French composers and French musicians have been doing for a very long time.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let’s hear an excerpt from the opera before we talk more about it so that everyone can understand what it is we’re talking about. This excerpt references the sun. Susan, what are we going to hear? I believe this is the only male voice in the production?

NARUCKI: That’s correct. You’re going to hear the three women singers and the male speaking voice. The male voice is reciting poetry while the women are singing and the scene in the opera takes place in a sun-baked landscape, so the women are speaking about the sun and the shade, and people will hear their – the sound of their breathing, which the composer also uses as part as a texture.

CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting.


CAVANAUGH: Let’s hear it. This is an excerpt from the chamber opera, “To Be Sung.”

(audio clip from “To Be Sung”)

CAVANAUGH: That is an excerpt from the chamber opera “To Be Sung” by Pascal Dusapin. That’s extraordinary.


CAVANAUGH: And I’m here with Susan Narucki. She is directing the performance taking place at the Conrad Prebys Music Center tonight through Friday night. Julian Pellicano is conducting the performance, and Billieanne McLellan, who we’ll be speaking with later, is going to be signing some of the performance. The lyrics from this opera are taken from Gertrude Stein so, indeed, does the opera actually tell a story at all?

NARUCKI: Well, it’s interesting. It doesn’t tell a story in the traditional narrative sense but with Stein’s text, the repetition of the words and the sound of the words builds a certain emotional narrative in each one of these sections. And I think the composer has very skillfully assembled sections of this text. He’s taken excerpts from a lyrical opera made by two, the text of Stein and we have moments of real emotional density and tension and release. That, to me, actually tells a story.

CAVANAUGH: Now could you possibly read some of the lyrics for us, Susan?


CAVANAUGH: So we could get a feel for what it sounds like.

NARUCKI: Sure. ‘Yes, yes, the address. Dress, dress in a press, press, press and caress, caress, caress. In express, express, express with a stress, a stress of an aptness to kindle and confess that she will be called a progress from which it is called farm and waving it alight. Alight, which is it. She makes it do. Do, do, be my own one, do, do, do, do, do…’

CAVANAUGH: That’s Susan Narucki reading from Gertrude Stein, some of the lyrics that are used in the opera “To Be Sung.” That free association that Gertrude Stein uses in the lyrics and the music itself, Julian, do they complement each other, do you feel?

PELLICANO: Well, yeah. I think that often in the text, when you really look at the text, although as Susan said, it doesn’t have a narrative so to speak, it does elicit certain types of, you know, metaphors that you can, you know, that you can take from the text. And, in a certain sense, there’s an – there’s a kind of eclectic mixture of metaphor – musical metaphors going on in the actual sounds of the orchestra and actually what the singers are singing. So in that sense, I think they complement each other very well, I mean, extraordinarily well for a text that doesn’t seem to make any narrative sense, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: As the conductor of this piece, Julian, I’m wondering, how does it look on the page? I mean, what we just heard, we heard people’s, you know, sort of sighing and that whole range of little voices and little breaths. How does that read on the page?

PELLICANO: Yeah, I mean, it doesn’t look like Mozart, I’ll tell you that. It’s – it – you know, the composers, you know, even going back to Mozart, composers have their own language, the language by which they notate their music, and every composer is different. And I think that in the modern day, when composers want to use different sorts of effects, they have to find a way to write it. That’s always the composer’s, you know, main problems, how do I write these sounds on a page? So it seems like it could be nearly impossible but – so trying to figure out how to decipher these, you know, these notations that are completely individual to each composer is always a challenge, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: I would imagine that it is. And one of the other things that I understand about “To Be Sung” is that the staging of the scenes is so important and so integral to the understanding and the whole flow of this. Talk to us a little bit about the scene ‘the women fall in love with color.’

NARUCKI: Ahh, yes, that’s one of my favorite scenes. We have a wonderful talented lighting designer with us for this project, Nick Patin, who’s one of our staff at UCSD, and he’s designed for this section a lotus flower whose petals are comprised of colors of the color spectrum. And it emerges from this dark blue space. The women find their way around the edge of it and then pick up translucent balls with glitter in them, hold the balls in the light, as they’re singing this next section that we’ll be hearing. That’s just a celebration of the sensuality of color, of being in this beautiful light and exploring the edges of the different colors of the spectrum.

CAVANAUGH: And it gives you a new way to see as well as a new way to hear.

NARUCKI: I think so. Yes, I think it really describes what Pascal Dusapin is trying to do with the music.

CAVANAUGH: Well, here’s the excerpt from the chamber opera “To Be Sung” that we will be hearing now. And let’s talk about it afterwards. This is “To Be Sung” excerpt by Pascal Dusapin.

(audio clip from “To Be Sung”)

CAVANAUGH: That’s an excerpt from “To Be Sung” by Pascal Dusapin, which will be performed tonight through Friday at the Conrad Prebys Music Center. It’s the west coast premiere of the piece. And, Julian, in that, there is the famous Gertrude Stein ‘a rose is a rose is a rose.’ I understand the instrumentation calls for some innovations. For example, the trombone has to do some pretty extreme things. Tell us about that.

PELLICANO: Well, that they’re innovations, I’m not sure.


PELLICANO: But they’re definitely extreme and the palette of different effects that the composer is using is pretty extraordinary. One thing I can tell you is that not only in the trombone part but all the parts are extremely virtuosic and demand an incredible amount of effort from all the players. But the trombone in particular is a kind of – is a special instrument. I mean, it’s the first instrument you hear and he kind of – the trombone sort of goes on a journey itself, you know, from using the extreme ranges of the instrument. One thing that you find is throughout the piece, the trombone is very high in the register. A trombone you think of as a low instrument but he plays high almost the whole time, bringing him as close as possible to the four – to the sopranos until the very end when he plays – the composer makes him play these notes that are not even almost possible on the trombone and you can’t even hear them as pitches anymore, they’re just growls really. And, you know, this brings us to a really different part of this in that, you know, a lot of the – a lot of what the composer is going for is really about the struggle of playing what he’s written on the page, some of it which is not even possible. Another thing about the trombone, for example, is that, you know, Dusapin is using a lot of what they call mutes in – what we call mutes. And basically what that means is that you take the instrument like a trombone or a trumpet and stick something in the bell that makes it sound like a completely different instrument. And so there’s a whole passage of music that goes on for about three to four minutes where the trombone puts a mute into his instrument called the whisper mute…


PELLICANO: …which makes it so that you almost can’t hear anything it’s so soft. It’s basically for practicing, you know. But then he makes the trombone play as loud as he possibly can.


PELLICANO: So you – the visual thing is that you see this trombone player, you know, playing very really violently and vigorously but there’s almost no sound…

CAVANAUGH: No sound, yeah.

PELLICANO: …coming out of his instrument. And so it’s really – I mean, and it happens over and over again in the different instruments. It’s almost about the struggle of executing what’s actually there.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Billieanne McLellan, I do want to get you into this conversation because we just talked about the visual element and you’re going to be one of the visual elements in this production because you’re going to be signing the – How do you sign a production like this that is so free-associative when it comes to words and to music?

MCLELLAN: Yes, Maureen, Amy Hart and I are going to be the interpreters for this show, actually for all three nights. And it is very different than any of the other work or the usual, as Susan was saying, it doesn’t tell just a regular tale, so translating that to a different language takes a bit more work than just taking one story and putting that same story in another language. And so it’s more for us about incorporating, as she said, that emotional narrative, more about trying to incorporate or trying to elicit the same feeling from the deaf audience as the hearing audience gets…

CAVANAUGH: That’s fascinating.

MCLELLAN: …from hearing.

CAVANAUGH: And, Susan, I wonder, as I said in the earlier part of this, this production is going to be put on by graduate students at UCSD’s Department of Music. Were they able to grasp this right away? How long did it take them to really – because, I mean, they’ve trained in a lot of traditional opera, a lot of traditional instrumentation and singing. How quickly did they – were they able to wrap their minds around this piece?

NARUCKI: Well, pretty quickly. I mean, at UCSD, our graduate program is really focused on the execution and composition of contemporary music, so the music of our time, so we do tend to attract students who are very interested in this art form. But we have been working on the piece since February…


NARUCKI: …doing musical rehearsals and then staging rehearsals. But my students are wonderful and talented and so incredibly dedicated and I can’t tell you how proud I am of them.

CAVANAUGH: If you wouldn’t mind telling us what were some of this – the things that they found difficult.

NARUCKI: Well, one of the most difficult things is Gertrude Stein’s text is not symmetrical. So just to memorize the pattern of the words is very, very difficult. There’s no way. You have to construct sense out of nonsense in a way. Pascal’s language is sometimes very difficult rhythmically so that’s a lot of asymmetrical rhythms and complex rhythms. That’s also very difficult. And a lot of the harmonies are very close so sometimes it’s just difficult to hear the correct pitch and the correct chord. But, well, they’ve worked on it very long and hard and I’m very, very happy with the results.

CAVANAUGH: There’s another section of the opera I think that probably – we’ll probably hear this as we go out where the women are what you call imprisoned by a word. That’s kind of what you were just talking to us about.


CAVANAUGH: What happens in that scene?

NARUCKI: Well, in this scene, the women are repeating the words ‘exactly forbidden’ over and over again. And in the staging, because they’re having to repeat these words over and over again, we have them actually being bound by a rope together. And finally they are able to break free at the end and they start talking about wanting to be kissed. So you’ll hear the chords breaking free and the women start whispering and then singing ‘kiss me, kiss me, kiss me’ as they break free of the rope.

CAVANAUGH: Even though this doesn’t have a sort of linear narrative, it is about relationships, isn’t it?

NARUCKI: It’s all about relationships. It’s about the relationships of the four women to each other and their relationship to that one male speaking voice. And I asked the singers to think about what kind of relationship they wanted to physicalize in the staging and I think they’ve all found their own vocabulary for that.

CAVANAUGH: And I just – before we leave, I do want to ask Billieanne, when you hear a dissonance like that or a crash, how are you going to be able to tell the deaf audience what’s going on? Are you going to sign ‘a crash’ or what are you going to do physically?

MCLELLAN: Well, that’s actually one of the things that we tried to incorporate into this piece was not telling the deaf audience what was happening, for instance not just signing ‘oh, that sounds like loud music now’ but to actually try to show that through our eye gaze, through our facial expression and through how the signs are excuted. So, as I mentioned earlier, so that there’s getting that same sensation as the hearing person gets when they hear a crash or being startled by music that they weren’t expecting, that hopefully the deaf audience would also get that same feeling of being startled by something they weren’t expecting.

CAVANAUGH: So, indeed, when they see you start or you make a sudden movement, you’re going to be interpreting the piece for them that way.

MCLELLAN: Right, so that it’s more of a visual representation of how – of what’s being said but also of how it makes you feel. And, of course, having to do that within the constructs of a language that’s already set, so, you know, we’re – just like the plum of Gertrude Stein’s little freeform of English, we’re being a little more freeform in our American Sign Language than we would if it was a true translation type piece.

CAVANAUGH: So this is – this piece makes demands on all the performers.

NARUCKI: Indeed.


CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you all. As I said, we’re going to go out on another excerpt from “To Be Sung” but before we do, Susan Narucki, thank you so much for speaking with us.

NARUCKI: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Julian Pellicano, thanks.


CAVANAUGH: And Billieanne McLellan, thank you, and break a leg tonight.

NARUCKI: Thank you.

MCLELLAN: It was talking...

CAVANAUGH: Performances of "To Be Sung" take place tonight through Friday night at 7:00 p.m. in the Black Box Theatre at the Conrad Prebys Music Center. If you’d like to comment on anything that you’ve heard on These Days, go online, You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.

(audio clip of excerpt from “To Be Sung”)