Storms from the Pit

The view from the middle of the soprano section during a rehearsal of Merry Mount in Kodak Hall

photo by Brenda Tremblay

Guess what?

I’m going to NYC to sing in an opera at Carnegie Hall.


There’s a sentence I never imagined typing, but there it is, true as sunshine, about to happen.  We (members of the Eastman Rochester Chorus with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and the Bach Children’s Chorus of Nazareth College) leave Tuesday morning to perform a concert version of the opera Merry Mount during an annual weeklong festival of North American orchestras at Carnegie Hall. (This year's Spring for Music Festival will, unfortunately, be the last.) I feel very lucky to be going.

Howard Hanson’s only opera is supposedly based on Richard Stokes' retelling of Hawthorne’s short story “The Maypole of Merry Mount,” but it reads more like an inverted telling of The Scarlet Letter with the devil thrown in for a Faustian twist.  There's sex, violence, even a mad scene out of the book of Revelations.  Hanson creates lyrical, gorgeous moments, too, especially in the love duet in the last act.

But the elephant in the room is the fact that this particular opera flopped after its glorious 1934 Met Opera premiere.  Why?  Among the 250 musicians involved in this week’s revival, there are probably as many theories.  I have my own, and I’m on tenterhooks to see how Merry Mount resounds with critics in 21st century New York.

Musically, it’s not difficult for the chorus to sing, but learning Merry Mount offered a personal challenge; I grew up in an evangelical church, and the hellfire and brimstone language flaming through the libretto by Richard Stokes was a wee bit too familiar, a little too much like the worst children’s sermons inflicted on me during summer camp.  I didn’t like singing “Death to the witch!” or “Tear the flesh of unbelievers.”  For a while, I had bad dreams.  Seriously. 

But on this bright spring day, the dark world of Puritans seems a world away.  And I promise to keep this light.

I love to sing more than anything, and I’ve been fortunate to perform in thrilling, farflung venues over the years -- Westminster Abbey, the Amphitheater at Chautauqua, and the Forbidden City Concert Hall in Beijing.  

And now this week, Carnegie Hall!

More to come . . .