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Death Goes to the Opera: Cal Historian Provides Words, Funds for ODC Production

March 16, 2015
by Steven Winn

In the ultimate game-changer for some biogenetic dreamers, death disappears and we live forever. Count on the artists to barge in and complicate everything.

Portugese writer José Saramago’s cunning and incisive 2005 novel Death with Interruptions opens as the citizens of an unnamed country suddenly stop dying. What first seems a kind of divine deliverance soon poses big problems — for the economy, doctors and hospitals, the Catholic Church. Saramago, a 1998 Nobel Prize winner who died in 2010, represented “death” as a female specter who decides to start killing again, only to find herself unable to finish off the “cellist” and falling in love with him and his music instead. In the process she undergoes the wrenching transformation of trying to become human. The names in the novel are lower case, but the stakes could hardly be higher.

UC Berkeley professor Thomas Laqueur didn’t know it when he came across the Saramago novel in the course of wide-ranging research for his forthcoming book The Work of the Dead, but he had stumbled on a game-changer for himself. A longtime opera lover and amateur cellist, Laqueur had been searching for a project to fund with a portion of the riches remaining from the $1.5 million Mellon Foundation Distinguished Achievement Award he received in 2008.

“I wanted to do an opera as a way of engaging, through the arts, some of the ideas I was working on,” Laqueur, the Helen Fawcett Professor of History, said recently over lunch in downtown Berkeley. “I think opera, with its fusion of words, drama, music and spectacle, is particularly well suited for that. But my knowledge of opera production was asymptotically approaching zero.”

After lots of meetings that had him wandering through the wilderness of various grand-scheme ideas, Laqueur realized that both the Saramago novel and a way to enact it were “hiding in plain sight.” His own cello teacher, Leighton Fong, was a member of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, a 23-year-old San Francisco group that had been looking to expand its artistic footprint. A chamber opera based on the Saramago novel was just waiting to happen. And so it has, launched by the history professor-turned-impresario’s $50,000 investment.

Com­poser Kurt Rhode doesn’t care for most op­era. “Some op­er­as aes­thet­i­cize a real-world top­ic or event in a way that un­der­mines the in­her­ent sig­ni­fic­ance of what ac­tu­ally oc­curred” he said. “A lot of oth­er op­era is really about the com­poser show­ing off his skill set.”

Death with Interruptions, with a score by award-winning composer Kurt Rohde and a libretto adapted by Laqueur, receives its world premiere March 19 and 21 at the ODC Theater in San Francisco.

Scored for three vocal soloists, choir and the Left Coast Ensemble, the opera is drawn from the final third of Saramago’s book. That’s when death (soprano Nikki Einfeld) tries unsuccessfully to send the cellist (baritone Daniel Cilli) a letter advising him of his imminent demise and then gradually falls under his musical spell. Tenor Joe Dan Harper plays the triple role of death’s scythe, the narrator and a dog. Yes, there are some laughs in store.

At a February salon organized to raise interest in and money for the production, Einfeld and a Left Coast quintet offered a tantalizing preview of Death with four excerpts from the opera. Audiences can expect a richly imagined, almost tactile experience. Early on in Rohde’s resourceful score, death sings in a stutter as she gropes her way towards human speech. In another passage, she strokes and plucks the strings of cellist Leighton Fong’s instrument as he plays it, producing eerie sliding sounds that mirror her own heightened vocalizations. The chorus, said Rohde, sings in pre-verbal gibberish at the outset. The pianist plays more of his notes directly on the wires than he does on the keyboard, as if the instrument were a body under dissection.

Rohde, professor of music composition and theory at UC Davis and a recipient of both the Rome Prize and the Berlin Prize, cheerfully told the salon guests that he doesn’t care for most opera. Death with Interruptions is his first foray into the genre.

In a later phone interview, the composer elaborated on his misgivings. “Some operas aestheticize a real-world topic or event in a way that undermines the inherent significance of what actually occurred” he said. “A lot of other opera is really about the composer showing off his skill set. It’s almost completely divorced from the narrative and drama.”

Rohde sees the Death libretto as “one long trajectory of death’s transition from the non-corporeal to the corporeal, from nothing to being a woman.” Because death doesn’t operate on any conventional clock, Rohde wanted his score to “unspool time. The moment when death and the cellist acknowledge that they love each other is the most protracted part of the opera. Time almost comes to a standstill. At the end, we snap back to ‘our’ time frame.”

Laqueur was looking forward to the first full rehearsals with an avid, almost child-like sense of anticipation. “I can’t wait to hear how it all comes together,” he said, his fork poised over a salad.

It’s been a long road to get this far. When the notion of funding an opera first came to him, Laqueur had only a vague idea of doing something around the idea of death, the immersive topic of his concurrent research. (His previous books include Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud and Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation.) Thinking he might invest up to $300,000 in a major production – an opera based on Hurricane Katrina was one idea – Laqueur met with the famed opera and theater director Peter Sellars, Cal Performances executive and artistic director Matías Tarnopolsky and Sheri Greenawald, director of the San Francisco Opera Center.

The theoretical started to become actual when Laqueur began talking with Joana Carneiro, music director of the Berkeley Symphony. Born in Lisbon, Carneiro was deeply familiar with Saramago’s work in its original Portuguese and thought Death with Interruptions was a splendid idea for an opera. Once Laqueur made the connection with Left Coast, he began extracting a playable libretto from the book.

His first draft, he recalled with a self-deprecating shake of the head, was 8,000 words. He subsequently got it down to 5,000 and then, in collaboration with Rohde and director Majel Connery, to the 1,500 words – all of them selected and arranged from Saramago’s text – that constitute the performing version. “In the arts as opposed to academic writing,” said Laqueur, “you learn that you don’t need say everything in so many words.”

In his new book The Work of the Dead, Laqueur spends some 350,000 words considering everything from graveyards to exhumations to memorials in his study of responses to the body after death in Western cultures (Grave Matters, CALIFORNIA, Fall 2012). The opera project induced a new kind of thinking. “I’d spent all this time thinking about the dead as characters rather than about death as a personified character. The opera really has expanded my thinking.”

It also has had an effect on his professional work. “Doing the opera gave me confidence that the academic book didn’t need to be that academic,” said Laqueur. “I found I wanted to write in a way that was more gestural and that had a deeper emotional resonance.” The Work of the Dead, in other words, is a somewhat freer and looser work thanks to the Death with Interruptions opera.

Laqueur insisted he isn’t looking past the two performances at ODC this month. “Of course I hope people think it’s wonderful and it might move on,” he said. “But I’m just pleased to have played a part in this. It’s both humbling and thrilling to see this idea come to musical life.”

Death with Interruptions plays March 19 and 21 at the ODC Theater, 3153 17th Street, San Francisco. Tickets: $30, $15 for patrons under 35. For more information call (415) 617-5223 or visit

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