"Come, daughter.” Voices plead, ethereal and haunting as they overlap and echo in the plaintive opening of David Lang’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Little Match Girl Passion. The opera is part of a Lang double bill receiving its West Coast premiere this month (July 28–Aug 5) in a collaboration between Portland Opera and Jerry Mouawad, cofounder of venerable Portland theater company Imago, best known for the giant puppetry and comic acrobatics of shows like Frogz and ZooZoo.
“I’ve always found Jerry’s work to be innately musical in feeling,” says Christopher Mattaliano, the opera’s general director, who’s devised opera collaborations with such local groups as BodyVox, Portland Art Museum, and Third Angle. “Both Lang operas are quite beautiful and theatrical, but rather unconventional in structure. The challenge they present in telling the story through text, movement, light, and music seemed a good fit for Jerry.”
Mouawad and Imago have a local and national reputation for inventive staging; in May, the company’s Medea featured a tilting stage of Mouawad’s own design. He’s still figuring out an approach to the opera’s project—he has directed puppets and people in various forms, but this is his first crack at directing a choral work. “Both pieces continually evolve with you,” he says of the Lang operas. “That’s the sign of a really great work—that the layers of depth are continually revealed to you.”
There’s depth, yes, and darkness here: The Little Match Girl Passion is based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale of a poor young girl selling matches on the street, here recast as a secular Passion play. The other work, The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, inspired by an Ambrose Bierce story and with a libretto by playwright Mac Wellman, tells and retells of one man’s sudden disappearance from an Alabama field.
One of Mouawad’s new challenges has been grappling with the physical demands on singers—at one point he had the chorus ascending and descending a staircase before he saw its impact on breathing. He also has to consider the complications of artistic multitasking. “They already have complex scores to sing, and if I give them complex dramaturgy, that’s a lot to absorb,” he says.
What they’ll be singing is some of the most stirring choral work from the 21st century from one of the most acclaimed composers of our time. Mouawad, who calls himself a minimalist, is hoping to create space for empathy in his pared-back production of two pieces that deal explicitly with human loss.
“Come daughter, help me cry,” plead the voices in The Little Match Girl Passion. Pack your hankies.