Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Raven' Gets an Operatic Take

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As the music and literary worlds remember the life and career of Maya Angelou, another eminent American author and poet is drawing attention in New York this week.

Like Angelou, Edgar Allan Poe was celebrated for the musicality of his prose, for the melodious lilt he brought to words inherently tense and gothic. His 1845 poem The Raven is a masterpiece of the supernatural, depicting a distraught man's descent into madness as he's tormented by the presence of a mysterious raven.

The Raven has had a rich and recurring place in American popular culture, whether figuring in a "Simpsons" Halloween special, inspiring a concept album by Lou Reed or giving Baltimore's NFL franchise its name.

The tale of the spooky bird is also the subject of an operatic adaptation by the Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa, which gets its U.S. premiere this week by Gotham Chamber Opera. The performance opens the first-ever New York Philharmonic Biennial, an 11-day festival of contemporary music.

Scored for a mezzo-soprano narrator (Fredrika Brillembourg), dancer (Alessandra Ferri), and a 12-piece chamber ensemble, Hosokawa's work is strongly influenced by Noh, the classical Japanese dance theater. In Noh, humans and animals interact and shamanistic figures convene with spirits – qualities that the composer found in Poe's poem. But in Hosokawa's conception, a female singer serves as the narrator, a reversal of Noh's all-male casting convention.

Lucca Veggetti, the Italian dancer and choreographer who directs the Gotham production, extended the Noh principal further by introducing a solo dancer. "This idea of introducing a silent figure which is basically the animation of the singer – they are doubles of each other – comes from this same idea of the piece being some sort of Shamanistic act," he said.

Set on a tilted stage, the mezzo-soprano recites the entire poem in a voice that ranges from whispers to screams, and includes the famous line "Nevermore."

Neal Goren, Gotham's artistic director and conductor, says that the sounds suggest a wild, modernist horror soundtrack. "There are times when the wind players blow into their instruments without using any tone so it sounds like the wind howling," Goren said. "The string players are doing extended techniques – glissandi of harmonics. So it sometimes sounds like sirens."

While the opera's musical language is steeped in European and Japanese avant-garde techniques, Veggetti believes the poetry packs plenty of inherent drama than anyone can latch onto. "The poetry has magical quality in a way, where the words have a quality that goes beyond their intellectual understanding," he said. "It's not a play. It's not necessarily a dramatic monologue. It's poetry."

The Raven will get three performances at John Jay College, May 28 (sold out), 30 and 31.