Northwestern University Opera Theater at the Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music will present the regional premiere of composer Christopher Cerrone and librettist Stephanie Fleischmann’s opera “In a Grove,” Nov. 17 to 20.
Performances will take place at the Ryan Center for the Musical Arts’ Ryan Opera Theater, 70 Arts Circle Drive on the Evanston campus.
Following the world premiere at Pittsburgh Opera in early 2022, the Northwestern University Opera Theater production of “In a Grove” is directed by Joachim Schamberger with music by the Contemporary Music Ensemble conducted by Alan Pierson.
Based on the same short story by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa that provided the plot and characters for Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film “Rashōmon,” “In a Grove” is set in the ghostly remains of a forest in the Pacific Northwest in 1921. Seven witnesses — some of whom are suspects — provide testimony about events that transpired in a mountain grove, after aspiring botanist Leona Raines goes missing and her schoolteacher husband Ambrose Raines appears to have been murdered. However, all is not as it seems, and each new revelation in this suspenseful tale draws the audience deeper into an examination of the subjective nature of truth and the human experience.
Content warning: “In a Grove” contains material that may be distressing to viewers, including implied sexual assault, and portrayals of physical violence, self-harm and other upsetting topics as well as prop firearms, gunshot sound effects, strobe lights and artificial fog.
Cerrone returns to the Bienen School after prior collaborations that include most recently the April 2022 world premiere of “The Last Message Received” (also with libretto by Fleischmann) and a performance of his 2015 work “The Branch Will Not Break” in February 2020.
On composing “In a Grove,” Cerrone said, “I tried to take something unconventional — a story told over and over again from different perspectives — and marry it to music, where themes, repetition and variation help us navigate and understand this mysterious tale.”
Throughout the work, Cerrone transforms the voices electronically to exemplify the flawed roughness of memory using reverb, pitch-shifting and granulation — effects that Cerrone said, “suggest that our characters’ memories are flawed, foggy or plain wrong.”
“The truths and untruths that we perceive, gloss over, embrace, refute or deny drive the trajectories of our lives,” said librettist Fleischmann. “The story’s form, that of seven testimonies, asks us to listen differently — to approach narrative, language, image and sound in new ways, and in so doing, perhaps, to see and hear anew.”
Also on the program is François Sarhan’s “Hands,” conducted by Alan Pierson and performed by the Contemporary Music Ensemble. Inspired by Charles Reznikoff’s “Testimony,” a document-poem drawn from late 19th- and early 20th-century criminal court transcripts, the short musical-theatrical pieces that comprise “Hands” refer to both manual labor and the physicality of the performance itself. The world premiere of “Hands” was performed by Alarm Will Sound, co-founded by conductor Pierson.
“‘Hands’ is a series of short pieces in which the musicians tell stories,” composer Sarhan said. “They involve immigrants, families, children — all are people who don’t get media exposure. The musicians tell the stories as if they were their own, while playing their instruments. The music, the instrument and the story interact in order to produce a mini drama between theatre and music.”
Performance times for Christopher Cerrone and Stephanie Fleischmann’s “In a Grove” and François Sarhan’s “Hands” are 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 17 to 19 and 3 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 20.
Tickets are $18 for the general public and $8 for full-time students with valid ID. Tickets may be purchased online at concertsatbienen.org, by calling 847-467-4000 or visiting the Bienen School Ticket Office located at the southeast entrance of Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle Drive, on the Evanston campus. Ticket Office hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday and noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday.