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Eternal Tao: A Multimedia Opera

Choi / Aavala / Williams
Release Date: 01/29/2013 
Label:  Ravello (Dvd)   Catalog #: 7866  
Composer:  Kyong Mee Choi
Performer:  Julieann ZavalaBrad Jungwirth
Conductor:  Michael Lewanski
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ensemble Dal Niente
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

CHOI The Eternal Tao & Michael Lewanski, cond; Kyong Mee Choi (dir); JulieAnn Zavala (mez); Brad Jungwirth (bar); Samantha Stein (sop); Allison Hull (alt); Jeff Jablonski (ten); Chadley Balantyne (bs); Ens Dal Niente RAVELLO 7866 (DVD: 85:00 Text and Translation) Live: Chicago 10/22/2010

& Pre-Concert talk with Kyong Mee Choi, Stephen Burns, and Brad Jungwirth (19:58)

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This multi-media concert piece composed by organist and painter Kyong Mee Choi is described on the packaging as an “opera,” but although it does indeed include singing it does not present a stage drama, or characters, or anything else that would constitute the normal conception of opera. Even Meredith Monk’s brilliant stage work Atlas, which alas seems to have disappeared without a trace (on stage, that is), is more an opera in the conventional sense of the word as it presents characters and a plot, even though 95 percent of the music is vocalized without words. But since Choi is giving us a visual representation of the Tao Te Ching, which is a poetic philosophy rather than a drama, what one sees and hears is a mélange of colors, movement (provided by dancers, who actually dominate the performance), projected images on a screen and, yes, occasionally singers. The vocalists only appear in five of the 12 movements or sections of the work, always clad in white robes, and always in the function of poetry readers rather than characters. (To avoid confusion I listed the individual singers above as their names appear on the DVD, but in fact the last four function as a chorus. Only baritone Jungwirth and mezzo-soprano Zavala actually sing solo lines.)

It should also be pointed out that prerecorded electronics mingle with the performance by the “live” orchestra. Given at Ganz Hall on the campus of Roosevelt University in Chicago, an online photo of the stage shows it to be very small, roughly three grand pianos’ width across and, I’d guess, no more than 25 feet deep. Choi makes surprisingly efficient use of this small space, at times suggesting a larger venue due to her creativity in lighting effects. A trio of female dancers, who open the work in “The Transcendental Tao” and close it in “Returning is the Movement of the Tao,” function almost like the Fates, or the Norns of Wagner’s Ring. Indeed, there is a connection to Wagner in that Choi has created a strongly integrated audio-visual work in which one should ideally never have one aspect without the other. Granted, the music “flows” in a slow-moving morphing that bends not only tonality but mood through a variety of timbral effects, changing orchestration and sometimes very sharp changes of mood, but then again, so do Wagner’s Lohengrin and Parsifal.

The video recording of the performance, supervised by Geoff Slawson, is very professional and makes about as good a use of mid-range and long shots as can be done in such claustrophobic surroundings. Since the orchestra is not in a pit but merely playing near the apron of the stage, you often see silhouettes of musicians and the bows of string instruments. Well, this is a representation of the Tao, so perhaps all of this is part of the ambience and atmosphere of the work. And then another question presents itself: Should this piece be experienced more than once in exactly the same way? In other words, once you’ve watched it, would you want to or need to watch it again? By rights, immediate consciousness should be a one-way trip. Yet, in the interesting pre-performance discussion included here as a bonus feature (and which I watched first), baritone Jungwirth points out that Choi’s score is meticulously detailed in every respect, not only in terms of normal musical notation but even including timings of how long certain sections should be sung, when exactly to change the lighting effects, add “smoke,” alter the background images, etc., etc. Therefore I’d say that the composer intends this to be a “set piece” capturing her impression of the Tao which can and should be performed virtually the same way every single time. Interesting.

Some of the sections of this work flow continuously into each other, while at other times there are definite pauses or stops between sections. The first five sections are performed in near-darkness, with highly effective use of blood red pinspot lighting. With the fifth section, “Colors Blind Your Eyes,” we suddenly switch from a black background to a white one as this portion of the work focuses on close-ups of someone’s hands holding fall-colored leaves and other similar objects. The most “violent” music is reserved for section 9, “And Yet People Prefer Crooked Paths,” in which the soloists and chorus repeatedly sing, “Clothed in silk, Armed with sharp weapons, Stuffed with food and drink, Flush with wealth, Is being like a thief.” By this time we have returned from a light to a dark background.

There is no question but that this is a well-conceived work. The booklet even reproduces the 12 acrylic paintings by Choi which hung in the foyer of the theater as a prelude to the performance, which—though far too small to make their proper impact—are nonetheless fascinating and impressive.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

The Eternal Tao by Kyong Mee Choi
Performer:  Julieann Zavala (Mezzo Soprano), Brad Jungwirth (Baritone)
Conductor:  Michael Lewanski
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ensemble Dal Niente

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