DeathWilliam Mayer - A Death in the Family

Armel Opera Festival, Sgezed, Hungary 2012 | Róbert Alföldi, Sara Jobin, Philippe Brocard, Adrienn Miksh, Vira Slywotsky, Gabriel Manro, Todd Wilander, Nora Graham-Smith, Sarah Belle Miller, David Neal, Joshua Jeremiah, Brooke Larimer, Ashley Kerr, Judith Skinner, David Gordon, Aaron Theno | Internet streaming - ARTE Live Web, 8 October 2012

Based on a novel by James Agee - the work unpublished at the time of the author’s death - A Death in the Family was created for New York’s Center for Contemporary Opera in 1983, the composer William Mayer, drawing also from Ted Mosel’s play ‘All the Way Home’ in the writing of the libretto. It’s a work that is seeped in the local colour of the deep American south and the period, set in Knoxville Tennessee in 1915, the score and libretto drawing music and imagery from gospel music and the blues to capture the tone of melancholy and sorrow that pervades the opera.

Evidently, Death is the big subject at the heart of the work and the one that contributes to establishing the overall tone, but as the title indicates, the idea of the family also has a significant role to play in drawing people together and providing some kind of buffer and protection from the harsh realities of the outside world. That sounds like a simple enough concept, but the work - not necessarily pessimistic, but certainly agnostic about the idea - also questions whether the gulfs of personality, social background, religious beliefs and simply individuality don’t make that connection impossible to really achieve, and whether gathering together as a family unit to deal with the trials of everyday life isn’t anything more than “tramps drawing around a fire in the cruellest winter“.

Those divisions are highlighted in the Follet family, in the experience of Jay and his wife Mary and their young son Rufus. Mary is pregnant and, religiously inclined, takes the advice and guidance of their local preacher Fr. Jackson on how best to break the news to her young son that he is due to have another brother or sister, telling him that the family is soon to have “a joyful surprise from heaven“. Her husband Jay - who is closer to the boy, enjoying Chaplin movies with Rufus that Mary disapproves of - doesn’t buy into religious “mumbo-jumbo” and would rather Mary be more direct with the boy, who has enough trouble understanding the workings of the world and is often taunted by older boys. Jay sets out one night to respond to a family emergency, his father having suffered a heart attack, and is killed in a car accident. The death in the family brings them together, but still no closer, Mary praying to God, her brother Andrew railing against God, Rufus wondering how this could be a “joyful surprise from heaven”, while rumours circulate that Jay might have been drunk while driving.

Despite the rather heavy nature of the subject dealing with big topics like Death, Family, Race and Religion, and the evocation of those themes through gospel music imagery with a great deal of emphasis on the sorrow and loneliness that form a significant part of the human condition, the work approaches its themes from a surprisingly wide and varied number of angles through the extended members of the Follet family. The things that give people a sense of personal identity and belonging are the same things that keep them apart, and time, distance, age, generational differences, the past give different meanings and values to different people. Yet despite the seemingly insurmountable differences between them, and the sense that they are growing apart from one another, Mary and Jay do seem to reaffirm their bond at the beginning of Act II, just before events cruelly take Jay away from them, leaving the other members of the family hurt and confused.

Considering the variety of threads that and the almost contradictory nature of how they serve to separate as well as draw together, Mayer’s construction and writing do well to bring them together into a cohesive drama. Keeping arrangements simple, using solitary notes sustained by strings and woodwind, as well as little piano interjections, the score sustains a sense of melancholy and tension, incorporating gospel and blues tones to provide that necessary sense of colour. As well as providing genuine melodies and singing that goes beyond mere spoken recitative that is common in modern English-language opera, this also allows A Death in the Family to deal with such big themes without melodrama or overstatement, showing how they relate to ordinary people, dealing with the nature of life and death, and with nature itself - and music is very much a part of that.

The staging, directed for the Armel Opera Festival by Róbert Alföldi, also strives for the same simplicity, using nothing more than a large box to represent the idea of home, of family togetherness, with panels that open out to embrace the wider world, or close up within itself. A balcony above the stage allows for further extension and separation beyond this world - such as when Jay and Rufus go to the cinema. It’s the arrangements of the people within this setting however that really establishes the connections and separations between them, grouping together, singing together, or - by the end of the opera - singing together individually within their own worlds. One other notable device, which works wonderfully, is the use of a ventriloquist dummy for Rufus, the dummy replaced at significant points by a real boy.

Apart from highlighting and premiering many contemporary opera works, the Armel Opera Festival also aims to support and develop new singing talent through competition that allows the finalists to be judged in the context of a full opera performance. The contest competitor in A Death in the Family was Philippe Brocard playing Jay, a role which has considerable challenges for a non-native English speaker, and Brocard coped with them admirably, delivering an sympathetic and well-sung performance. Mary was exceptionally well sung by Adrienn Miksh, but the performances were strong from all the singers, who worked well with each other to really bring out the qualities of an interesting work presented in a fine staging here in Szeged.

The Armel Opera Festival production of A Death in the Family is currently available to view on-line from the ARTE Live Web site.