They form a caravan like no other. They cross borders, traveling in huge numbers, ignoring any law—except survival. They come for food, and shelter. And when it suits them, they will leave.
But rather than being any kind of threat, migrating birds also sing for us. They fill the woods with poetic colors and activity. And they inspire dreamers, artists and musicians—perhaps none more so than John James Audubon.
Chorus pro Musica’s upcoming world premiere of “Audubon,” an oratorio by James Kallembach, weaves a story about the famous 19th century illustrator. Kallembach’s libretto resonates not only in our times—both for birds and for humans—but speaks deeply to the life of the complex man whose outsized “Birds of America” became an international bestseller.
CpM, directed by Jamie Kirsch, performs “Audubon” Saturday evening at Jordan Hall. Baritone Sumner Thompson sings the title role, backed by a chorus of nearly 100 singers, with a chamber orchestra. Kathy Wittman of Ball Square Films has created video accompaniment to complement the semi-staged production.
Audubon’s life story is not easy to condense, not even with a concert-length program. “James has narrowed it into certain things,” Wittman says of the composer’s libretto, “but it’s still sweeping.”
Audubon was a jumble of ambition, artistry and miscalculations. Today, his name rightly evokes the foremost naturalist’s organization in the world, the Audubon Society. In real life, he was an multi-faceted artist, a man who tried and failed at multiple businesses, a wanderer who spent years isolated from his family.
“This is such a huge undertaking for a small ensemble,” Wittman says of CpM. “It’s kind of breathtaking, and overwhelming. James’s music really captures the boundless size of the frontier, and of Audubon. There is nothing small about the person, or the story.”
Audubon certainly was ambitious. He owned a lead mine, and then various stores. He built a flour mill. He hunted. He traded goods overseas. He moved all over the American wilderness—from Pennsylvania to Missouri to Kentucky. He prospered, and he went bankrupt. He spent years separated from his wife Lucy and his children—something Kallembach portrays vividly.
His “Birds of America” venture—roaming the wild for specimens, creating the paintings and, most astonishingly, venturing to England to sell subscriptions for the expensive enterprise—became his lasting achievement. Still, it’s an achievement mixed through with contradictions.
“What he did to the birds he loved, to create ‘Birds of America,’ is analogous to what he had to do to his family,” Kallembach says. “He had to sacrifice his relationship to his family, and he has to sacrifice his love of birds. In order to paint the birds, he had to kill tens of thousands of them. There is no way to observe and draw without killing. It’s the grotesque reality of natural history.”
Audubon did kill. And studied the intricacies of taxidermy, in order to create his vivid, almost unnatural poses. He shot his subjects, situated them theatrically, pinned them with wire—then painted.
“He’s not just drawing these stuffed mammals,” Kallembach says, “he posed them in an attitude. That’s his genius. His poses are evocative, and sometimes inaccurate. And he sold it all with tall tales from the frontier, sometimes ridiculous stories of his experiences in the wild.”
Kallembach’s libretto focuses on two periods. In the first act, we see Audubon leaving his family, portfolio in hand, sailing the Mississippi and then on to England to sell subscriptions. The second act captures him in England, playing the rogue, spinning tales of the American wilderness to bolster his sales pitch.
“At first I thought of it as a comic opera,” says Kallembach. “Not in an opera buffa sense, but in an ‘All’s well that ends well’ sense. His was a circular, but heroic trajectory. He resolves to make this ludicrous work of art, and also to go to Europe and sell this exotic view of America. In the end he realizes he has become estranged from his family, and he returns.”
“James’s libretto gives you multiple views of Audubon in a short time,” Kirsch says. “There is always a connection between the birds and his life. He needs to leave his family to pursue his love of drawing. When he does decide to go back, it’s because he sees a band he placed on a bird, and that reminds him of his wedding ring.”
The video accompaniment is more than simple catalog of the great illustrations—although there are plenty of those too.
“In working with Kathy Wittman, we discussed how we would represent his life without it being a slide show,” Kallembach says. “I created the libretto as a sort of reverie on Audubon’s perspective.”
“This is not a history work,” Wittman says. “It’s an imaginative retelling, a Romantic take on this character. It’s storytelling, in an evocative way. I use video as scene setting; video can do the same thing as music, but with lighting and color.”
The music—lots of percussion, and winds, naturally, evoking birdsong and the wild—should have immediate appeal. “It’s tonal, accessible, and extremely creative,” Kirsch says. “Long flowing lines, mixed with drama—it has everything. You could spend years with this score, but the audience will also get it right away.”
Chorus pro Musica, conducted by Jamie Kirsch, presents James Kallembach’s oratorio “Audubon,” with baritone Sumner Thompson singing the title role, on Sat., Nov. 9 in Jordan Hall. For tickets and information visit www.choruspromusica.org or call 617-267-7442.