Rio de Sangre, an opera with a muse
Don Davis, composer of the Florentine’s Rio de Sangre, met Kerry Walsh when he was scoring a movie, Behind Enemy Lines, in 2001. The film ends with an a cappella choral arrangement of a Croatian folk song. Walsh was one of the singers.
Davis asked: Does anyone know Croatian well enough to teach everyone else to pronounce the words? Walsh, as it happened, had once spent time with a Croatian fellow and hung out in his circle. She had the sound of the language in her ear and volunteered. The music charmed her so that she asked Davis’ permission to perform it at a concert put on by a small Los Angeles opera company in which she was a regular.
“Don said, ‘You know, I’ve been thinking about writing an opera — for 12 years,'” Walsh said, in an interview Wednesday. And thus began a nine-year adventure that will culminate in the world premiere run Friday through Sunday in Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. Walsh will portray Antonia, spouse of Christian Delacruz, the central character. His rise to and fall from power in a fictional Latin American country is the core of the story.
Back in 2001, Davis sent Walsh some sketches and an outline and asked for feedback. The eventual result is a role written for Walsh’s unusual skill set.
“When Joe Rescigno [the Florentine’s principal conductor] saw the angular lines I had written for Antonia, he said it couldn’t be sung,” Davis said, in a separate interview Wednesday. “Then Kerry Walsh came to town and sang it.”
“I really love the challenge,” Walsh said. “I respect that someone had the faith in me to write that part. I’m putting every fiber of my being into it. It’s exhausting and invigorating at the same time.”
“I was a new-music singer before my voice got big,” Walsh said, noting that Ray Shattenkirk wrote Aves — a four-part fugue for solo voice — for her. “I have this chip in me that drives me to do everything the hard way.”
Davis feels the same way.
“I’m not interested in writing what could have been written 110 years ago,” Davis said. “But I let the drama lead me to the styles that support it. There was a time when I thought doing anything tonal was a betrayal of history, but that was before the age of anything goes. When a composer hangs his polemics on a narrative in an opera, I find that unsatisfying. In an opera, I can justify a style because the dramatic narrative demands it.”
Rio rests comfortably in post-modern thinking, in that different parts of it trace to different historical precedents and stylistic categories. The love duets for Igneo, Delacruz’s advocate, and Blanca, his daughter, for example, soar with lines that could be straight out of Verdi. The difference is in the orchestra, which carries free-flowing harmonies that never would have occurred to a 19th-century Italian. That sort of thing makes this opera relevant and current, but it also makes it a harder sing.
Davis isn’t apologizing.
“It’s singable,” he said, “but singers will tell you it’s butt-hard. Sometimes maybe they feel it’s not worth it. But it won’t be relevant musically if it just rests on old techniques. I’m interested in breaking new ground. Fear of failure is the root of mediocrity.”
Antonia, as perhaps the most explosive individual in an opera full of combustible personalities, has yards of stressful music.
“I get looks of pity from everyone in the cast,” Walsh joked. “Almost everything is rage or intense grief, with no relief. That takes a toll. I have a lot of high singing, and it all needs to be strong and have a lot of presence. It’s sustained and important, not just touched on.”
And it’s not just singing. Antonia is an intense acting role. Walsh must take care not to let the emotions run away with her, because that affects breathing. Singing is all about breath control.
“You have to hold yourself together and let yourself go at the same time,” she said. “Sometimes you have a complete emotional breakdown as an actress and then you have just a moment to pull yourself together and sing one of the most difficult vocal roles ever written. This is risky business.”
Despite the objective difficulty of her part, Walsh has found it not quite so taxing as she expected or as everyone around her assumes it to be.
“Don set the text so expressively that I don’t have to add a lot,” she said. “It’s like Verdi; if you just sing the music, it will carry you along as an actor. A single word, a single musical interval, can say so much about what’s in the heart of the character. The drama, the feelings and intent, are all in the music.”
Antonia is not the first part Davis wrote for Walsh. Davis hired her to play flute in the orchestra and to sing on his soundtracks for Matrix Revolution and Matrix Reloaded. (Davis also wrote the music for the first Matrix film, before he’d met Walsh.) Reloaded includes a bossa nova song, Niaiserie.
“We recorded the orchestral tracks one day and the vocal track the next,” Walsh said. “So on the soundtrack, I can hear myself playing the flute and singing at the same time.”
How many opera singers can do that? My guess: One.
The Florentine Opera Company presents the premiere run of Rio de Sangre, with music by Don Davis, libretto by Kate Gale, and Spanish translation by Alicia Partnoy. It will be sung in Spanish with English supertitles. Joseph Rescigno will conduct the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.
Curtain times are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 22-24, at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, 929 N. Water St. Tickets are $28-$108 at the Florentine website and at the Marcus Center box office, 414-273-7206.
Cast and Credits
Christian Delacruz / Guido LeBron (Baritone); Antonia / Kerry Walsh (Soprano); Jesus Guajardo / John Duykers (Tenor); Blanca / Ava Pine (Soprano); Igneo / Vale Rideout (Tenor); Estella / Mabel Ledo (Mezzo soprano); Bishop Ruiz / Rubin Casas (Bass). The Florentine Opera Chorus, prepared by Scott Stewart.
Stage Director / Paula Suozzi; Scenic and Lighting Designer / Noele Stollmack; Choreographer / Simone Ferro.