Eastman Opera Theatre will present “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” with music by Ricky Ian Gordon and libretto by Jean-Claude Van Itallie on Nov. 1-4 in Kilbourn Hall at the Eastman School of Music, 26 Gibbs St., Rochester.
This piece came to fruition after Gordon lost his partner, Jeffrey, during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
“The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” commissioned by Houston Grand Opera and The American Music Theatre Festival in 1995, has only been performed twice, with the last performance occurring over 22 years ago. There is no recording of the work available, though it features jazzy riffs, prominent percussion and even some blues, along with bold orchestrations.
“Scored for 12 instrumentalists and eight singers, this 90-minute opera teaches us how to approach life and death without fear and uncertainty, and how to remain guarded, alert and focused with purpose,” director Steven Daigle said.
“The Tibetan Book of the Dead” is a manual traditionally read aloud to the dying and the dead by a spiritual teacher or friend. This sacred text is a guide for the living to live their best lives despite the distractions of daily life.
Daigle felt that a culturally relevant approach was of great importance in presenting this rarely performed work. Set in a New York City subway with a cast of millennials, this interpretation deals with senseless violence and murder.
“Media and technology have made violence and death more accessible in our life,” Daigle said. “At the same time, they have the ability to desensitize and devalue life. The sanctity of life is lost as it becomes a number or statistic with no face, no feeling … a breathless narrative.
“There is a big difference in reading, hearing or watching a video clip, compared to witnessing live a senseless act of violence and killing. I would imagine that witnessing this sort of senseless brutality makes you think differently, slow down and stop. It becomes more personal and introspective. This is where we hope this production leads its audience.”
Gordon’s works include “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The House Without a Christmas Tree” and “My Life with Albertine.” “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” was his first opera. He recently visited Eastman as part of a weeklong residency. Gordon worked directly with students to craft their characterizations, enhance their performance of his music, and help them bring the story and its message to audiences.
“It was so deeply rewarding to be at Eastman to talk about genesis of ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’ and to hear it again,” Gordon said. “I felt like Jeffrey was alive again, and I marveled at how ‘other’ the piece was from anything else I had written. I felt immensely proud of its strange beauty, and enormous gratitude at the love and integrity that is being heaped upon it by Steven and Tim and the wonderful casts and designers. I am happy to say hello to it again, give it light and air. I feel like the timing is perfect for ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’ to be shared with an audience again. I am a lucky man.”
This is Timothy Long’s first production as EOT music director following the retirement of director Benton Hess.
“I am thrilled to be conducting a profoundly important opera by one of my favorite people, Ricky Ian Gordon,” Long said. “In ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead,’ his sweet soul shines through and it is a beautiful tribute to his late partner, Jeffrey.”
The music in the opera reflects the journey of the dead, starting out in chaos and dissonance before shifting in tone.
“The second movement, ‘The Moment of Death,’ is the actual text and music that Ricky sang to Jeffrey as he was passing away,” Long said. “The music does not reach forward or grapple with existential questions, it simply is. One can hear the crystalline, timeless energy of this moment which denotes acceptance. It is probably the most peacefully melodic part of the entire opera.
“During the rest of the opera, we experience the inner workings of the dead’s mind, and this incorporates many popular styles and tonalities. The music is unlike anything Ricky has ever composed before or since.”
Admission costs $24. Student tickets are available for $10. Tickets can be purchased at the Eastman Theatre Box Office, 433 E. Main St., Rochester.
Call (585) 274-3000 or visit eastmantheatre.org for information.