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the little match girl passion | an emotional opera experiment at PAMM

May 24, 2016

Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl is the heartrending tale of a poor girl who freezes to death on the street on New Year’s Eve, even as she has a vision of her dead grandmother, who transports her to heaven. It’s a blend of sentiment, morality and religion that beautifully represents a classic kind of 19th century storytelling.

The artists behind a production of the Pulitzer Prize winning chamber opera the little match girl passion at the Pérez Art Museum Miami this week aim to bring Andersen’s story alive in unexpected ways that the Danish author could never have imagined. Presented by the Miami group IlluminArts, the haunting piece, with four singers and a percussionist, will have daily open rehearsals at PAMM starting Friday, making the creative process as much a part of the event as the final performance on June 2. The Miami production, which goes on to several New York galleries and the Metropolitan Museum of Art later this year, is part of a growing movement of creative efforts to keep the beleaguered art forms of opera and classical vocal music alive.

“I’m interested in taking away the barrier of a proscenium stage and the orchestra pit and making a piece about a girl on the street in the snow who’s ignored by the public, as a vehicle for an intimate exchange between performers and audience,” says director R.B. Schlather, who earned rave reviews for similar open presentations of two Handel operas at a New York gallery. “Walking into a museum and experiencing a classical music performance where you wouldn’t expect it — I feel like that disorientation is really energizing. People keep doing the same kinds of shows they’ve been doing in the same kinds of spaces. You have to shake things up more.”

The series is free and takes place on the wide stairway-performance area at PAMM. Since it’s also the main passage to the museum’s second floor galleries, regular exhibit-goers could be lured in. People can come and go as they please.

Mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider, artistic director of IlluminArts, launched the group with two other vocalists in 2013 to stage performances of vocal chamber music at museums and galleries, capitalizing on Miami’s thriving visual arts scene. The music is chosen to reflect the artists on show; Crider selected little match girl passion in part because it resonated with themes of suffering, endurance and fragility in PAMM’s exhibit of Colombian artist Doris Salcedo.

“It’s a passion project for me,” says Crider, 39, who makes her living as an opera singer but works on IlluminArts for free. “We can’t let opera become a museum piece that isn’t relevant to our society. Miami is a young city, we don’t have a history of culture. We have to find a way for [classical music] to make sense here.”

Small, innovative efforts like little match girl passion are increasing as the opera world looks for creative alternatives to grand, expensive traditional productions. (Florida Grand Opera has staged shows at clubs in the Design District and South Beach.) Schlather, 30, came up with his open rehearsal concept in 2014, soon after the beloved New York City Opera, where he was staff director, folded amid financial travails that sent shock waves through the opera world. A depressed Schlather was pondering his next move when he went to a party at the Whitebox Art Center, where he was struck by the energy at the Lower East Side gallery. The Handel operas he staged at Whitebox were inspired by those excited partygoers, as well as Schlather’s experiences growing up in Cooperstown, New York, where he was an extra in the town’s renowned Glimmerglass Opera Festival, and put on theater shows with his friends.

“You were always in church basements and gyms, in these funny spaces … with people in street clothes in this weird space, and it was always so riveting,” Schlather says.

The four singers in the PAMM performance, led by soprano Anne Carolyn Bird, are all acclaimed veteran vocalists. Schlather wants the audience to be able to experience the immediacy and excitement of creation with those artists.

“Sometimes we’re in the middle of the room singing and trying to get at these extreme emotional experiences and that is the performance,” he says. “That’s what’s exciting — you don’t know what you’re going to get.”

Composer David Lang’s little match girl passion also provokes visceral and personal reactions. A prolific, successful contemporary music veteran who co-founded New York’s antic Bang on a Can festival when he got a commission from Carnegie Hall in 2007, Lang, 59, wanted to respond to classical music’s long, deep relationship with Christianity.

“Most of the great Western composers were not only hired by the church but were believers who did all sorts of incredibly powerful things to show what they felt about God,” Lang, who is Jewish, said from his home in New York. “I feel the passion and commitment, but there’s a limit to how close I can get because I’m not Christian.”

He focused on Bach’s monumental St. Matthew’s Passion, a “passion play” or choral work telling the Biblical story of the betrayal and death of Jesus, juxtaposed with moral and religious commentary. Lang wanted to pose a secular equivalent to a dilemma at the heart of the Bach piece, the crowd’s indifference to Jesus’ suffering. When his wife suggested Andersen’s classic, Lang not only saw a parallel with the little girl who is spiritually transformed amid her anguish, but a real-life connection in his own encounters with homeless people in New York.

“If you take God out there’s a universal message there about how we become better human beings,” says Lang. “You live in a city where people are suffering on the street and you ignore them in order to live your life. I tried to ask how can I walk by a person suffering, yet this story breaks me up.”

The simple, crystalline songs in his composition, which the New Yorker called “one of the most original and moving scores in years,” express the match girl’s pain and visions, interspersed with others that react to her plight.

Schlather sees something of his beloved, distressed art form in that story. “I feel that classical music is being pressed out of the public consciousness as undesirable when if you engage with it, it can change your life,” he says. “The little match girl is about ignoring things that make you uncomfortable, but if you engage with them your life could be changed.”

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