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Points of view: An opera based on an iconic story gets its world premiere in Pittsburgh

It’s a key element of modernist storytelling: the same narrative told from multiple perspectives. And one of its defining artworks is “In a Bamboo Grove,” a 1922 short story by Japanese author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. The story inspired Akira Kurosawa’s iconic 1950 film “Rashomon.” Now it’s also been adapted into an opera by acclaimed composer Christopher Cerrone, making its world premiere this week at Pittsburgh Opera.

Madeline Ehlinger
Pittsburgh Opera
Soprano Madeline Ehlinger sings the roles of Leona and her mother

Cerrone’s “In a Grove,” with a libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann, follows Akutagawa’s story closely. A man, a woman, and a notorious outlaw meet in the woods. A violent encounter leaves the man dead. Then the audience watches multiple characters retell the story from their own points of view.

But the point of the opera isn’t really to suss out exactly what happened, its creators said.

“It’s not just a whodunit. It’s really an emotional whodunit,” said Cerrone. “It’s really about the fact that we live in a world where people believe profoundly their own story and their truths, and their own version of their truths.”

Nor is it simply about the vagaries of memory.

“It’s more how each person’s subjective emotional stake in what happened colors how they perceived what happen to have been,” said Fleischmann.

The opera takes place in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, in 1921 – just about same year of the publication of Akutagawa’s story, and at the same latitude as its setting. The setting is touched by a recent wildfire; the stage, strikingly, is a low runway about 70 feet long that will divide the audience at the troupe’s Bitz Opera Factory, half to either side.

Yazid Gray
Pittsburgh Opera
Baritone Yazid Gray sings the roles of the outlaw and the woodcutter

The cast of four includes soprano Madeline Ehlinger, as both the woman, Leona, and Leona’s mother; baritone Yazid Gray as both the outlaw, Luther, and the woodcutter who discovers the crime scene; tenor Andrew Turner as the man and a policeman; and countertenor Chuanyuan Liu as both a priest and a medium who channels the testimony of the murder victim. Ehlinger, Gray, and Turner are all Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artists, while Liu is making his Pittsburgh Opera debut.

The nine-piece orchestra includes timpani, harp, strings, and woodwinds. Cerrone’s haunting, atmospheric score relies heavily on electronic instruments — still unusual, even for a contemporary opera. These digital elements include samples that provide a “white noise” the permeates the play – the aural equivalent of forest fog, he said.

Even more unusually for opera, the singers wear microphone headsets, and digital effects are used occasionally on their voices. Cerrone said the echoey treatments are meant as an aural analog for memory.

“It’s almost like you can see the words floating in the air,” he said. “Reverb is the memory of a sound.”

Cerrone, who’s 37 and based in Brooklyn, is a noted composer. His 2013 opera “Invisible Cities” caused a stir: The site-specific production about a fictional meeting between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, was staged in a Los Angeles train station for an audience wearing headphones. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for music.

Andrew Turner
Pittsburgh Opera
Tenor Andrew Turner sings the roles of the husband and a police officer

“In a Grove” came to premiere in Pittsburgh partly because of Cerrone’s work with the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble. On a work trip here several years ago, he met Pittsburgh Opera general director Christopher Hahn, who said he found Cerrone’s concept for “In a Grove” “fascinating.”

Hahn said his troupe would stage it if were commissioned. The work is co-produced by LA Opera, and sponsored in part by the Allen R. and Judy Brick Freedman Venture Fund for Opera. The stage direction is by Mary Birnbaum, with musical direction by the Opera’s Antony Walker.

“Because it reflects on the nature of truth and perception, I find that a fascinating subject matter, and I think it’s something that art and music and opera can delve into very successfully,” said Hahn.

“I love that every single audience member will leave the performance or leave the show having a different viewpoint,” said baritone Yazid Gray. “It kind of is a story that shows there is not only one side to every event. You have to hear all the parts to really understand what happened.”

“In A Grove” runs about one hour. There are six performances over three weekends starting Sat., Feb. 19.

More information is here.

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