While playing Pelleas et Melisande for some elementary schoolers, we discussed how music changes understanding of text. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra presents a festival of French Reveries & Passions this month. But I couldn’t help but take away the setting of scene two “in the castle” to represent the dubious accessibility of classical music to the lesser experienced listener.
There is the conception that the symphony concert goer fits the profile of a typically, older and financially up-scale patron of the arts. This “monarchy” can snatch up tickets at the highest rates and escape for an evening to the elaborate landscape of the castle-resembling concert hall. While counterparts, of the citizenship, stay outside the castle potentially barred by barriers of cost of entry or distance or priorities elsewhere or the perceived notion of the space of classical music as inaccessible. After Tuesday’s closing performance of Debussy’s opera, I thought it would be a perfect vehicle to discuss adaptation with the tools of music and text with young listeners in order to take steps to lower the draw bridge into the castle.
First, we watched a video of singers with an orchestra, no staging, no subtitles, to challenge them to look at the music for cues about the storyline. The CSO production went a step above this basic staging incorporating movement of the singers at their stands, surtitles and a complex light projected set. These elements played nicely to strike a balance between pure operatic performance and a strictly concert presentation.
I centered our analysis in the “Tower Scene” in which Melisande finds her hair miraculously lengthened after it dipping in the pool and Pelleas walks by the base of the tower encountering her hair reaching down. This element of the story seemed relatable to students as similar to a Rapunzel story. There are clear differences between both tellings, but the similar elements laid groundwork to talk about adaptation. We took to writing and drawing our own Rapunzel stories in a modern setting.
What elements are essential in our adaptations to make the story similar enough, but apply to a modern setting?
All the stories had some sort of tower and magical elements. There were Wizards with potions at the top of a shelf, a suspended cage in a tree kept by a witch, and the bunny in the tree who gets down and goes out for pizza. I was pleasantly surprised with how the students chose different elements of the story to maintain and change.
Debussy adapted Maeterlinck’s text by setting it to music and then the CSO’s adapted it to performance. The magical qualities are suspended throughout, the music adds a layer of mysticism, and the lights and dramatization of the CSO illuminated the setting. The impressionism of Debussy’s music felt copied by the lighting design with its blurry, “almost-there”ness. This setting employed a narrator that tied together scenes and transported the audience from the outside world into the soundscape of the story with ease.
I went to the performance with my friend who is an engineer/casual oboist, which made talking about the symbols and themes of the story a little bit different than the conversation with a typical twenty-something artsy type. She was adept analyzing the structural elements of the story, she vigorously flipped through the pages of the program during intermission trying to learn everything about it. So when I brought up some of the symbols and metaphors that stood out to me, she replied that she didn’t note that, but could see where I was coming from (very analytical). One of the most strikingly symbols of the story that stood out to me was the hand. Metonymically, the hand stands for marriage, (taking someone’s hand in marriage), Melisande feels a hand grabbing her hair (her being is trapped and tied down), she loses the ring from her hand (loses the love of her husband).
Music and the text seem to marry metnoymically; the music is one piece that represents the story as a whole.
Next for the CSO is the French Reveries and Passions Festival is Messaien’s Turangalila-symphonie. A symphonic piece with no performed text, but based off the tale of Tristan and Isolde. There are clear musical links between the two French composers, but the approach to adaptation of a story is sure to differ. How will the adaptation present itself with Messaien’s work? With his setting, what I can imagine is the themes of passion and strong drama of the death of two lovers. The “reveries and passions” certainly shine in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performance.