Once in a blue moon, if one is lucky, an artist gets to be a part of a project much larger than oneself that turns out to be an uplifting, even transcendent, experience that reverberates beyond one’s normal sphere. It is even more so when one can be involved in the creation of something for the first time. The Society for New Music’s premiere of composer Persis Parshall Vehar’s new chamber opera Eleanor Roosevelt is such an experience for all involved.
As the conductor I have the unique privilege of and responsibility for establishing the flow and momentum of the piece. Finding the musical and dramatic pacing and timing for this work, and all the motivic connections between scenes, has been a continuous experience of the joy of discovery. The opera is based on a book and play on Eleanor Roosevelt by Rhoda Lerman, and the libretto by Ms. Vehar’s daughter Gabrielle contains some excellent wordplay. The opera itself has many wonderful dramatic turning points, and many power moments for the title character, which Ms. Vehar has effectively captured in music. Among my favorites:
In the first scene of Act I Eleanor expresses the wish to be of service in some larger cause by volunteering in World War I. The expectations that come with the social position of her family are expressed through the character of her mother in law: “Fixed things, Eleanor.” (The orchestra plays exclusively Mama’s motive, underscoring her dominance.) Not long afterward FDR’s infidelity is revealed as Eleanor urbanely but poignantly observes: “She had been my social secretary, my excessively social secretary….” Her reading a letter to him from his mistress is set to a sardonic, biting dance in irregular meter reminiscent of Bernstein: “Meet me tonight, Franklin….” FDR replies “We will have to talk of this,” to which she replies “Now’s not time to talk of it….” ER continues “We will go on, and at the correct time, and I will let you know when the correct time is.” The orchestral accompaniment becomes very strict and measured, with woodblock strikes evoking the passage of time. All of this shows Eleanor to be poised, sensitive, controlled, and above all dignified in facing her own pain – all of which is reflected in the music. The first scene finale “For the sake of the children” captures all of the bitterness, grim resolve, and weight of the moment.
Subsequent scenes reveal to Eleanor the awful reality of war and its victims in the form of three French widows and her military escort, British Major Duckworth. Duckworth’s quirks are initially repulsive, but Eleanor comes to understand they are the result of his flashbacks to the battlefield. From these individuals she learns empathy: “My suffering seems so small compared to theirs, but I understand….” During a tour of the French graveyard Baupaume (comparable to Arlington Cemetery) both Duckworth and FDR tell her how people died in World War I. In the final scene of Act I she reflects (I presume this text to be from Eleanor Roosevelt’s actual letters, on which the book and libretto are based): “I remember what I saw that day. I had always believed … that the world was in a state of progress and unfolding, evolving. The world was moving toward something more divine, less painful – and that it was the duty of each of us … to be part of the movement upward.” Ms. Vehar sets this to espressivo strings ascending in a manner reminiscent of Barber’s Adagio in one of the most exquisite and affecting moments of the opera.
The opera is about Eleanor’s journey of discovering her voice and her calling in life. This journey continues in Act 2 when she invites some women leaders in labor, agriculture, and education over to the house for lunch. Mama Roosevelt confronts Eleanor about her friends: “I think it is unspeakable to allow those lowlifes into my house!” Finally Eleanor declares, “I shall build my own house, and invite whom I wish to lunch. Yes, I shall build it across the road – and I shall invite everybody I like!” (The best possible reason for building a house, to have lunch with your girlfriends!) “And you, Franklin, if you intend to run for office, you would be wise to come and visit!” And then, in a sweeping descending line over the subdominant: “We all have a great deal to learn, we all have a great deal to learn….” To learn what those from different backgrounds and experiences have to teach us – in this scene her own state of progress and unfolding has clearly begun.
In the finale of Act 2 Eleanor relates her realization that her calling was to work for peace and for human rights, and that she must answer that calling: “Tragedy isn’t death, tragedy is what we do with our lives – or what we don’t do.” The final chorus sings the text of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, which was Eleanor Roosevelt’s crowning achievement – one still very much relevant and timely to our own times, witness Libya, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.
An elevated theme such as finding one’s individual voice and declaring universal human rights places a considerable burden on the composer. Ms. Vehar has risen brilliantly to this challenge. It’s not easy to avoid sounding either maudlin or hokey in handling this subject matter, but Ms. Vehar’s score is neither – it is varied, subtle, balanced, and genuine. The music steadily builds to the final line “All human beings are born free, and equal in rights.” This ending reaches toward the same expressive end as the monumental works of Western music, and in the dress rehearsal the cumulative effect was so powerful I felt as if were I conducting the finale of Mahler 8!
How often do we have the opportunity to see and hear, much less be a part of, such a powerful and inspirational project or event? The singers, especially Bridget Moriarty as Eleanor Roosevelt, have interpreted their characters beautifully and imaginatively. Director Gerard Moses, stage manager Victoria King, and others have given this production a richness and vividness onstage. Society for New Music’s director Neva Pilgrim prepared the singers for over a year, and made it possible for such a visionary project to happen. And how fitting that all of this should happen near both Seneca Falls, the birthplace of women’s suffrage, and Hyde Park, home of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt.
To paraphrase Eleanor, for an artist the highest aspiration is to be part of the movement upward toward something more divine. Working with this music one feels that the music is speaking to you personally, urging us to find and be true to our calling, to be strong and graceful in how we conduct ourselves, and to continue to challenge ourselves to grow and to work toward something noble as Eleanor does. Whether one experiences it as a performer or a member of the audience, a work like Eleanor Roosevelt gives us perhaps just such an opportunity. The greatest thanks to Persis for composing music with such strength and uplift for us to perform, and to Eleanor herself for her visionary and inspiring life and work.