FUTURE ORIGINS OPERAS
Besides The Light Opera and The Grand Opera, three operas based on Biblical themes are also in the works.
THE CHRIST MASS
Act One: The Fall - the story of Adam and Eve
Act Two: The Redemption - the story of Mary and Joseph
THE PRODIGAL SON - a retelling of the Old Testiment story of forgiveness
THE SONS OF ABRAHAM - the story of Isaac and Ishmael whose separation created the breach of the Hebrew and Arabic tribes.
The ORIGINS operas are absolutely unique!
But how were they created?
Below is the description of the creative process by one of its most amazing artists.
During this time my son Pennell had started to combine all his interests and talents, including his early theatrical experiences. He developed a new way of doing stage performing that was derived from the newest techniques in psychodrama and therapy and at the same time the oldest techniques of performing; from before the time that theater was scripted and memorized. He learned a lot about this by studying trance performing on his yearly visits to Bali. This was all way over my head. I probably would never really have understood it had he not called me one day late in 1986 to tell me that he was doing a new opera production in Los Angeles, called The Light Opera. Then he said in a rather wry tone that he was looking for a singer in her eighties for the title role!
I was 83! Against all my protests, Pennell insisted I get myself out of the mothballs and start vocalizing. After 25 years of not singing, it was very difficult. Like a runner who has not run for all those years, the muscles wouldn’t work. After six months of practicing, however, I finally got my breath to work, and I could sing on pitch most of the time. Much to my sorrow however, I had lost my high notes, which had always been the most spectacular feature of my voice. I was discouraged, but I decided to use what I had. I couldn’t go above an F, but I had almost become a basso or maybe a baritone. I could reach ‘D’ below middle ‘C’ completely. It was not much use for opera, but great for jazz or blues songs.
Pennell’s operas are basically improvised. They are rather like an improvised production of Hansel and Gretel, which he had enjoyed so much when he was a child actor. There is a definite story, and the characters, actions, as well as some basic musical motifs and aspects are set, but basically, the performers extemporaneously create the music and words in the moment, rather like jazz. Of course, when I had sung in operas, the words, music, and traditional acting were all written out for me in stone. Leave it to my son to do everything differently!
When I went out to Los Angeles to join the cast, I was completely lost! But this was the technique that Pennell had created, and he was able to teach us how to do it. The other three women in the cast and the accompanist were experts at it, as they had done it several times. But I was petrified.
’I'll never know how I had the nerve to get up there to sing the words and melodies extemporaneously, with nothing but the plot to go by. In addition I had the awful fear of singing too high, which would have been a catastrophe. It was the hardest thing I ever did. As a costume, I wore the gold sequin sheath dress I had designed for my golden wedding anniversary. We did two performances in a theater and one in a lovely Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. Pennell said, “Just let go and sing!”
I don’t know how I ever got through it.
In this music you are supposed to abandon yourself and soar in the spirit of the music. I don’t think I ever got off the ground. Fortunately, I didn’t have to move very much, as I sat on my throne a lot of the time and got up only when I sang. So I just had to do a few gestures. I don’t know why Pennell didn’t give up on me and throw me out, but because I was 83, maybe I had age in my favor. A few times I felt as if I were soaring. In those moments I realized what it was all about. It was wonderful.
Our experiment in Los Angeles led to one of the biggest thrills of my lifetime. Pennell announced he was going to do The Light Opera at the 1990 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which is the oldest and largest performing arts festival in the world.
Before we even left, there was a flurry of publicity for Pennell and me in Arkansas. This was exciting, as I hadn’t sung in public for twenty-five years. So I had not had any publicity during that time.
A big picture and write-up was in the Arkansas Democrat telling about the opera and Pennell’s preparation for it. In big letters at the top of the article it said, ROCK HEADS TO SCOTLAND FOR MUSIC AND MAGIC.
There was a big picture of Pennell and me in the Arkansas Gazette with a long write-up about the opera.
“Bill and Maud-Key Rock are getting very excited about their trip to Scotland to attend William Pennell Rock’s production of “The Light Opera,” a most unusual sounding creation in which Maud-Key will sing the title role that her son wrote for her. And in case you didn’t know, this octogenarian is a soprano, who has sung with the Chicago and Baltimore Opera Companies.
The work celebrates the descent of the human soul from the primordial light into the egoistic world, in which it
forgets its source, and the remembering by which the soul may return to the source. The gothic architecture sets the mood for the production, which evokes the mystery plays of the middle ages and archaic performance ritual. The performance is to be in the gothic setting of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Mary’s in PalmerstonSquare, Edinburgh on August 9-18.”
“The music is created in an unusual way,” he said, “it’s not pre-composed or pre-written. The story is set, the characters are set, but the music and lyrics come out different every time.” Rock developed this “entheotic” technique through years of research into ancient performing traditions in Greece, India and Bali. “It’s my secret,” he said. “I learned about people in Bali who have no training in performing and a priest puts them in a trance and they are able to perform in a slightly different manner each time. The idea intrigued me, so I learned how to do it.”
I don’t know if I was ever in a trance, but as I got into it, I have to admit that it was thrilling to do this kind of performing. Believe me, I was very impressed by his background and proud of his accomplishment.
Performing the opera in a small theater and church in Los Angeles was one thing, but singing in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival was quite another. Something, I don’t know what, propelled me to do all of this madness. At the age of 87, I got on the plane, flew to London and Edinburgh alone. I was met by strangers, as Pennell was in another part of Scotland putting on a show.
Finally the whole cast (same as the one in California) came together in Edinburgh. Pennell and I had an apartment together with Pennell’s friend Steve, and his dear mother, who were assisting with the production. The girls and the three male instrumentalists stayed in another apartment. We were to perform the opera in Great St. Mary’s, a gothic Episcopalian Cathedral with a long aisle and a high, lofty ceiling. It was one of the loveliest cathedrals I’ve ever seen.
The instruments were most unusual. There were three very gifted instrumentalists. Two of them played a synthesizer that was capable of making 15,000 different kinds of sounds. The third played percussion and one of the weirdest instruments I had ever seen. He had invented it himself. It had 29 aluminum panels and was called the “Aluminata”. All together they sounded like a big symphony orchestra – really amazing!
We had two weeks of preparation with Pennell to prepare the opera. Bless him, I don’t know how he put up with nine temperamental and very nervous musicians with all their complaints, advice, and criticisms. At one point, one of the instrumentalists threatened to go back to America. Pennell said he expected to have more trouble with me than any of the other performers; but I turned out to be the least of his problems. I do have a pretty even temperament. Maybe I was too dumb and frightened to know what was going on.
We gave seven performances stretched out over ten days. We got rave reviews. I’ll give you a short synopsis of them from different Edinburgh papers and magazines.
This from the Festival Times.
“The Light Opera is a unique musical experience. Beautiful voices and excellent musicianship. The four soloists create
dynamic librettos and unique harmonic in the moment. The musicians themselves are remarkable. As with all improvisations there are uneven moments, but the high points are sublime. The Light Opera is worth seeing. It’s innovative, mesmeric, and uplifting.”
Stage & Television Today said this:
“The splendors of the soaring nave and gloomy apse of St. Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh are the awesomely appropriate setting for William Pennell Rock’s very distinctive operatic creation, “The Light Opera.” Each performance is unique in that music and lyrics are composed spontaneously by the artist, though within an established structure and on the given theme. Dr. Pennell Rock, who has studied and collected performing art forms from many cultures, likens such performances to the utterances of an oracle in the tradition of archaic religions. His mother, a remarkable lady in her eighties and once an opera singer in Chicago and Baltimore, plays the role of “Light” with effortless majesty. “The Light Opera” is a distinctive theatrical experience, which some may find a spiritual experience too.”
The reviewer at the Scotsman was reputed to be very tough. But look what he said about us!
“The nave of St. Mary’s Cathedral turned out to be a most appropriate setting for this great drama about light and dark, very much a musical equivalent of Botticelli’s paintings where neo-platonic allegory is handled luminously. Powerful eerie singing of great ritual import radiates from the allegoric women. Many including myself found the experience utterly awe-inspiring.”
My favorite commentary was written by Neville Chamberlain, the minister of St. John the Evangelist Church. One Sunday during the run of the performance, he preached a sermon on the opera and introduced the cast. Here’s a letter he wrote:
“During the Edinburg Festival it was my privilege to hear “The Light Opera” performed in St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral. Not knowing what to expect, I found it difficult to believe that an opera could be performed without libretto or written music. However, I was more than impressed to experience a magical musical production, which dramatized the human spirit from birth through life, temptation, re-creation and return to its original source. The opera seemed to speak to everyone in the audience and each person could identify with the motifs of light or darkness, good and evil, despair and joy. The opera would appeal particularly to people with a Christian background who can bring to mind in the musical experience the Biblical stories of the creation, the fall, Cain and Abel, the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. There seems to be something in the music, which appeals to numerous archetypes of the collective unconscious. The performers bring to their music a tremendous power of creativity, which is contagious to the audience. The three
musicians provided a huge range of sounds and color, which reflected musical styles from various cultures throughout the world. I would like to say simply that the work of the “The Light Opera,” which I saw in Edinburgh was of such spiritual force that I have preached on the experience on several occasions.”
OPERA ON THE WING
(from The Song of My Life)
In the mid-eighties, I was approaching my mid-eighties. I had long ago given up singing, and my professional career was history. But to my astonishment, there was to be a whole new chapter in this story, and one of the most exciting at that!
“The musical equivalent of a Botticelli painting“ The Scotsman, August, 1990