There are many things one might say – would, in fact, want to say – about Morningside Opera’s production of Here Be Sirens, an enthralling new opera by composer and soprano Kate Soper showing at Dixon Place Theater in New York City. The fact that no one superlative seems to suffice is testament to how human a work Soper has managed to create about characters who, essentially, are not human.
Set on an unnamed Mediterranean island in, according to the libretto, “the past and the future,” Here Be Sirens (in eight scenes without intermission) tells the story of three sirens, perhaps the only three in existence, who hail passing ships with their song, coaxing them in and causing them to crash into the rocky shore and into their doom. Soper has created a fascinating setting for her sirens, visually rather like a monochromatic Dr. Seuss scene with inhabitants who are, in keeping with the myth, both alluring and horrific. Their world is primitive, mournful, haunting and enticing. The sirens have no way to leave the island, apparently due to the old world designs of moralistic gods. They are, as far as they know, sentenced to an eternity of seducing and killing sailors. They also have little capacity for memory, which becomes the intellectual bars that keep them on the island prison. Those who can’t remember their own history, it seems, are doomed to dwell in it.
What they do have, besides a piano that they take turns playing sparely and percussively, is books. Polyxo, played with lots of inquisitiveness and little temper by Soper, is a questioning being who wants to understand who or what they are and how they might improve things for themselves. Peitho (brought entrancingly to life by soprano coloratura Brett Umlauf) seems to revel in her feminine powers and is uninterested in rocking the figurative boat, although she is very interested in the sailors aboard the literal boats they lure to their shores. Phaino (eerily embodied by soprano Gelsey Bell) is the least anthromorphic of the three, stoic, at times almost a ghost.
Soper’s story is slow to develop, and in fact the first 20 minutes of the nearly two hours (at the January 12 staging) seemed closer to a song cycle with dense annotation than any sort of traditionally narrative opera. But once the sirens’ lot had been established, a sort of Beckettian fable began to unfold. Polyxo’s thirst for knowledge propelled the action, developing with ease into an investigation of feminism, mythology, psychoanalytic theory and centuries of trying to explain what we don’t understand. Her intellectual pursuits are not mere props. The sirens’ songs include texts by Plato, Homer, Carl Jung, Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Milton and Sappho, performed almost entirely a cappella and written with incisive wit, a flair for drama and moments of melodrama. The score, which ranges from the baroque to the avant garde, was delivered compellingly by the three women. It is to Soper’s credit that with the sheer amount of information being delivered the story never gets overly dense.
Such headiness is nothing new for Soper. She has scored Plato before, and has taken on Kafka, Jenny Holzer, Frank O’Hara and others. Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say, her fine setting of verse by Lydia Davis for voice and flute, is included on Relay, the second album by the Wet Ink Ensemble (Soper is a co-director of the group). A performance of the piece can also be found on Vimeo and is well worth looking up. She has a great sense for working with text and finding musicality in prose.
On the island, Soper’s alter ego is no less a seeker of knowledge, although she may have bigger hurdles to clear. With the benefit of the books inexplicably littering the island, Polyxo comes to realize that being a siren is considered a disease. “That’s how they all describe us – Boethius, Plutarch,” she says. “The siren song is something that befalls you. Desire is a catastrophe. But maybe a useful catastrophe. Desire is what keeps you alive.” At that point in the story the implications for our heroines are not only clear, they matter. Such revelations are what make us come to care about the sirens. In the end we can’t help but extend human compassion to what are (whether or not they want to be) murderous shrews. Either that or we have simply fallen for their song.
Here Be Sirens continues on January 30-31 and February 1-2 at Dixon Place Theater in Manhattan.