When Isabella Stewart Gardner died, she made certain the art in her museum would stay almost exactly as she had arranged it. Of course, that sometimes poses challenges to designing new programming at the museum.
"The terms of the Gardner will are powerful -- you can't change the art," says the Gardner's new music curator George Steel. "But you can change the way you look at it."
That's exactly what David Lang's new composition, "true pearl: an opera, in five tapestries," aims to do. The opera was written in response to five huge works hanging in the Tapestry Room, which tell the story of Cyrus the Great of Persia. It makes its world premiere -- and finale -- on Thursday, Oct. 4, in the Gardner Museum.
“The whole performance is a communion of the performers, and the librettist, and the composer, along with the audience,” says Steel, “There’s something strangely personal about it.”
Playwright Sibyl Kempson wrote the libretto, taking her departure from the story woven into the tapestries of Cyrus the Great, who founded the Persian Empire around 600 B.C. Broken into five movements of about five minutes each, “true pearl” unfolds as viewers gaze at the huge tapestries.
“The libretto moves,” Steel says. “Sometimes the facts that are shown in the tapestries are the focus. Sometimes one object, or one aspect of the story. Sometimes it’s the room itself, in a broader view — we look at the strange work nearby. Sometimes it’s a global context, and sometimes it makes fun of that historical grandiosity.”
The "true pearl" — a mystical, holy river that flows from paradise through Cyrus’ kingdom — shows up in all the tapestries.
“Each of the tapestries is a time machine,” Lang says. “They have the past, the future and the present all at once. You have this ancient narrative, but that story is told with 16th century Flemish animals, and dress, in northern Europe. The characters are involved in this weird honor fight, happening in human time, but surrounded by a landscape that looks like paradise.”
Lang's composition will be sung by the adventurous vocal octet Roomful of Teeth, with instrumentalists from the new music stalwarts Callithumpian Consort.
Known for its extraordinary extended vocal techniques — like throat singing, yodeling, Korean P’ansori, Sardinian cantu a tenore, Death Metal and Broadway belting — Roomful of Teeth brings its own tailored approach to any work. Most of what the Grammy Award-winning ensemble sings has been written especially for the group.
The group is making an exception this week though. The concert on Thursday also includes Lang's "The Little Match Girl Passion," based on Hans Christian Andersen’s heart-rending children’s story. The composition won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and a performance of it won a 2010 Grammy.
“It’s a departure for us,” says Roomful director and founder Brad Wells of singing “The Little Match Girl Passion.” “We don’t usually do things that weren’t written expressly for us. But we’ve always wanted to work with David, and he left room for some different vocal colorings, and expressive gestures. He gave us carte blanche for that.”
After Thursday's performance, the opera will exist as a museum headphone listening guide to the 16th-century Flemish artwork in the Gardner's Tapestry Room.
"You can have this museum experience, standing in front of the tapestries," Steel says, "and you can have this operatic experience as well. Listening at your own speed, unlocking who these people were, and what their situation was."
The story in the headphones involves the viewers of the tapestries, as much as it involves the characters in the tapestries themselves.
“As museum visitors we all come from different locations, schedules, interests,” Lang says. “Each of the tapestries is worthy of standing in front of for an hour. Or you can stare at it for 10 seconds, and still have a life-changing experience. And what can happen if you’re in the wrong mood, and you don’t look at everything? ... It works very differently from music. In music we demand people’s time. This piece is about how we improve our ability to look at something.”
Roomful of Teeth and the Callithumpian Consort present David Lang’s “true pearl: an opera, in five tapestries” in its only live performance on Thursday, Oct. 4 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.