The efforts to establish a new and functional role for opera in the late twentieth and early twenty first century have produced a wide variety of styles. One can certainly see the 1976 Philip Glass opera Einstein on the Beach as a landmark in these efforts in the conventional opera house but the development of chamber opera pioneered composers like recent National Medal of Arts winner Meredith Monk and Eric Salzman (both of whom created innovative works in this genre before Einstein) deserve attention as well.
This recording appears to fit into that tradition of chamber opera. Manhattan in Charcoal (2014) by Gene Pritsker with libretto by poet Jacob Miller requires six singers and a narrator along with a chamber ensemble of about a dozen musicians. I don’t know much about how this piece has been staged but it works well as theater for the ears.
I knew little of Pritsker’s work prior to receiving this disc for review and I read that his repertoire of techniques range rather widely from classical, to jazz, rock and rap influences. So I embarked on a bit of a learning mission. Fortunately I found his You Tube channel here. I found his web site a bit too busy and distracting even if it does seem quite comprehensive. (I dare you to try to sleep after confronting his oeuvre.)
Here is a man born in Russia, moved to Brooklyn at age 8 and attended the Manhattan School of Music graduating in 1994. While there he teamed up with conductor Kristjan Järvi to create the Absolute Ensemble. He counts approximately 500 compositions ranging from solo pieces to orchestral and vocal works. My journey of learning left my head spinning but it was not an unpleasant spin. Pritsker’s work incorporates jazz, rap, beat boxing and eclectic instrumentation as well. He has been active in the Manhattan downtown scene and may very well be the next generation of musical magicians to successfully grace that hotbed of musical eclecticism.
His style is mostly tonal and any experiments appear to have been done prior to the composition of the present work. I must say that his eclecticism and embrace of a wide variety of musical devices puts me in the mind of some of Stravinsky’s work at times. But Pritsker is not derivative, rather he wields a large pallete.
What we have here is a form of cabaret, well suited to small venues and friendly to audiences. It is well within the style and practice of such music and this piece is a good example of the updating of those traditions with contemporary instruments, music and modern performance practice.
The story is not unlike that of La Bohéme and, though hardly Puccini from a musical perspective, is as much a reworking of that old gem as West Side Story was a reworking of Romeo and Juliet. Here, however, we don’t see the romantic guise of Puccini but rather the unnecessary tragedy of a Romeo and Juliet beset not by family rivalries but by economic and social realities and perhaps by the inability to see them for what they really are.
This is apparently the first opera (of six) by Pritsker for which he did not write the libretto. I’m not sure what impact that has had on his overall effort but his ability to set the English language to music is admirable. All in all a thoroughly satisfying little drama which leaves the audience questioning these issues much as the protagonist has done.