Saturday, February 7, 2009

New Opera: "The Origin" based on Charles Darwin's writings

Charles Darwin inspired a new scientific field with his theories on natural selection and evolution. Now, 150 years after publication of "On the Origin of Species," the iconic 19th-century naturalist has inspired a new opera-oratorio from contemporary classical composer Richard Einhorn, who has put Darwin's own words to music in "The Origin." Einhorn will debut his new opera-oratorio at the State University of New York in Oswego on Feb. 6 and 7, just before Darwin's 200th birthday on Feb. 12.

The ambitious choral work was commissioned by the college for the worldwide Darwin Bicentennial and is among more than 200 lectures, debates, festivals and other events planned in 26 countries throughout February to honor Darwin, according to Darwin Day Celebration, Inc. More than half of those events are in the United States, including nearly three dozen in New York.

Darwin's seminal book "has places in it where it really approaches poetry in terms of the flight of the language," Einhorn said. "There is a kind of rhythm and poetry that almost automatically suggests music to me." To develop his musical tribute, Einhorn also used Darwin's "The Voyage of the Beagle," his autobiography, his so-called "transmutation notebooks," and his letters.

"It's a fascinating idea. Darwin was an excellent writer," said Eugenie Scott, executive director of the Oakland-based National Center for Science Education and a member of the international advisory board for Darwin Day Celebration. "His writings are wonderful. They show curiosity. They show a wonderful descriptive sense. He's extremely good at talking about nature and explaining it. There is no question that the idea of evolution has had a powerful and profound effect on literature, philosophy, religion, politics," she said.

The 56-year-old composer said he had long nurtured the notion of doing a piece with a scientific subject. While religion has its masterpieces, like Bach's St. Matthew Passion, science had no comparable works. Einhorn couldn't remember a time that he wasn't aware of Darwin's theory. "The sketchbooks were the final piece of the puzzle. They were perfect. Many are lists or fragmentary observations. They almost begged to be set to music," said Einhorn.

At first, Einhorn said he labored over getting the right "language" for this piece. But quickly he decided to let Darwin speak for himself. "I found the more that I worked on it, the less sober his writing became. Even though the subject matter sounds real brainy, there's actually a lot of humor and informality in his writing," said Einhorn, who collaborated with poet Catherine Barnett on the arrangements. Einhorn believes "The Origin" captures that element of delight in the process of investigation and discovery, adding, "Evolution by natural selection is musical candy almost. It turns out what Darwin is talking about is variation, and that is the big musical form. Jazz is basically variation on a theme. So is a lot of classical music."

Previously, Einhorn has has written opera, orchestral and chamber music, as well as scores for television, film and dance. His production of the Bach Cello Suites with Yo-Yo Ma won a Grammy in 1984 for Best Classical Instrumental Performance. One of Einhorn's most notable works was "Voices of Light," which premiered in 1994 and has been played around the world, including the Kennedy Center and the Sydney Opera House in Australia. The piece was inspired by Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 silent film, "The Passion of Joan of Arc."

"The Origin" is performed on three levels, which represent three different parts of Darwin's life. Kitka, a female Eastern European music ensemble, sings Darwin's autobiographical writings; they are his public persona, his worldly voice. Two vocal soloists sing mostly excerpts from Darwin's notebooks and letters, which represent his efforts to construct a valid theory of evolution. Finally, the chorus mostly sings excerpts from "On The Origin of Species," which is the theory fully realized and described. "Darwin as a human being came more alive for me than I expected. I expected to deal mostly with his science, but Darwin the man turned out to be quite an interesting character," the composer said.

The piece is debuting at SUNY-Oswego because of Einhorn's friendship with Oswego music professor and associate dean Julie Pretzat, who had expressed interest in commissioning a large new piece. With the help of ARTSwego, a local nonprofit group, Einhorn secured funding for his project from the New York State Music Fund and the National Endowment for the Arts.

"The bicentennial is a once-in-a-lifetime teaching opportunity. Darwin turns out to be this gentle genius ... There are very few people in history who the more you find out about, the better they get," said Allmon, who also teaches at nearby Cornell University, the North American home of the Darwin Correspondence Project, which has so far published 16 volumes of letters Darwin received or sent.

Concert: "The Origin, An Oratorio Tribute to Charles Darwin"
Date: February 6, 2009
Time: 7:30 pm - 9:30 pm
Occurence: Every Day, Feb 6, 2009 to Feb 7, 2009
Location: Waterman Theatre, Tyler Hall

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