Los Angeles Theater Preview and Interviews: AN AMERICAN SOLDIER’S TALE / A FIDDLER’S TALE (Long Beach Opera)

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by Tony Frankel on April 25, 2014

in Interviews,Theater-Los Angeles


In 1918, Igor Stravinsky and Swiss writer Ferdinand Ramuz wrote L’Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) a short theatrical work meant to be “read, played, and danced” while accompanied by a septet. Based on a Russian folk tale, the libretto relates the parable of a soldier who trades his fiddle to the devil in return for unlimited economic gain. In 1993, Kurt Vonnegut created a new libretto with Stravinsky’s score intact offering the dramatic account of a true-life and very famous soldier: Private Eddie Slovik, who in 1945 France was the first American soldier executed for desertion since the Civil War. The resulting version is a highly provocative yet entertaining fusion of Stravinsky’s acerbically folksy score with the slangy, edgy, abrupt Vonnegut text, which adds a hint of unexpected Brecht/Weill pungency to the mix.

The result, An American Soldier’s Tale, will be half of the double-bill presented by Long Beach Opera (LBO) beginning May 4 at the Terrace Theater. The other work is A Fiddler’s Tale, Wynton Marsalis’ response to Stravinsky’s work from the perspective of later twentieth century music, including but not limited to jazz. With words by Stanley Crouch, this 1998 work tells the story of a young musician who sells her soul to her record producer.

“Whereas Soldier’s Tale is staged often, Fiddler’s, which has been heard in strict concert form, is not,” director David Schweizer tells Stage and Cinema. “And it’s even more of a rarity that they are performed together. They don’t sound the same—DAVID SCHWEIZERMarsalis has a jazz flavor, Stravinsky is modernist—but they are no doubt linked.” Both works are written for seven instruments; the musicians, conducted by Kristof van Grysperre, will be on stage.

Having worked extensively in Southern California for decades, Schweizer—who is helming both works—has previously directed for LBO Ades’ Powder Her Face, Purcell’s La Indian Queen, and Vivaldi’s Montezuma. “Whereas soldiers tale is like a play—a bizarre play,” he chuckles, “the Marsalis is more in the classic storyteller / narrator vein.” Think Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, but with a septet instead of orchestra. “I chose Roger Guenveur Smith for Fiddler’s because he is a consummate solo storyteller.”

TONY ABATEMARCOI also spoke with Tony Abatemarco, who is appearing in Soldier’s Tale. Vonnegut’s narration has four characters: Private Slovik (played by Kevin Reich), the General (Abatemarco), the Military Policeman (Mark Bringelson), and Caroline the Red Cross nurse; the characters act out and describe the events leading up to Slovik’s death. In my interviews with both men, the word “Brechtian” came up more than once.

“The Crouch libretto – or poem – bounces off the original,” says Schweizer. “It’s about music rather than war per se; in fact, the central figure is a woman violinist. Vonnegut’s libretto is like a Brechtian vaudeville, a self-conscious anti-war screed; understandable for the author of Slaughterhouse-Five.”

A FIDDLER'S TALE - CD CoverI wondered if this review of Soldier’s Tale on CD was accurate: “Vonnegut’s snarky, profanity-laced verse text depicts officers as cold-hearted killing machines, Red Cross nurses as lice-ridden prostitutes and Slovik himself as a nerdy wise-ass who longs for death to release him from his loser’s life.” Schweizer laughed softly: “Yes.” Then he added, “Our version has more humanity to it.”

“Not only is the performance style of An American Soldier’s Tale similar to Epic Theatre,” says Abatemarco (who has been working with Schweitzer since 1976), “but the Brechtian flavor involves switching or stepping out of character.” In fact, both he and Bringelson will be sharing the role of Caroline the Red Cross nurse. (Everything comes full circle: The first time I saw Abatemarco on stage he played a woman in Irma Vep in 1987 at the now-demolished Tiffany Theatre on Sunset).

Brecht, and especially his work with Kurt Weill, comes to mind when hearing Soldier’s Tale. “Stravinsky was a big influence,” states Abatemarco. “I hear Weill, Leonard Bernstein, and lots of what became the modalities and dissonances of the twentieth century.” As if to validate Abatemarco’s opinion, a Yale School of Music AN AMERICAN SOLDIER'S TALE CD Coverreview claims the score is “carnivalesque, modernist, faintly jazzy, sometimes dissonant but without the pounding primitivism of Rite of Spring.”

There will also be dancing. Stravinsky, who had just a few years earlier written Petrushka and Rite of Spring for the Ballet Russes, offers among others “The Devil’s Dance” and “Royal March” to the proceedings. The score is replete with changing time signatures that make choreography a challenge. The cast along with Schweitzer will be creating the movement. “Expect a mélange of different choreographic styles, gestural storytelling, and an homage to Gene Kelly/Michael Kidd WWII dances thrown into the mix,” Abatemarco says excitedly. “We even watched the film It’s Always Fair Weather to capture the flavor of 1944.”

As for the look of the show, Abatemarco sums up Danila Korogodsky’s design as a “cross between Jonathan Borofsky and Jean-Michel Basquiat; a colorful, modern art installation with debris and splatter painting on the stage.”

“It’s an amazing and unique experience to see and hear this pairing,” Schweizer says. “You will witness the work of two genius composers who wrote all those years apart but share the same spirit. Patrons will see a wonderful, freewheeling, audacious range of performing styles, and music married to spoken word in ways that you don’t normally see in the theater.” These may not be operas, but the context—“heightened spoken word performance”—is very operatic.

AN AMERICAN SOLDIER'S TALE - A FIDDLER'S TALE at Long Beach Opera - POSTERphotos courtesy of Long Beach Opera

An American Soldier’s Tale / A Fiddler’s Tale
Long Beach Opera
Terrace Theater
300 E. Ocean Blvd. in Long Beach
Sunday May 4, 2014 at 7 pm
Saturday May 10, 2014 at 2 pm
run time: approx. 2 hours & 15 minutes
(with 1 intermission)
for tickets, call 562.432.5934
or visit www.LongBeachOpera.org

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