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LA MONNAIE DE MUNT

The Time of Our Singing

From Great American Novel to opera

Marie Mergeay
Reading time
6 min.

In The Time of Our Singing, the US writer Richard Powers describes how, against the backdrop of post-war segregation in his country, a racially mixed family is both united and pulled apart by music. The novel inspired Kris Defoort for his magnum opus. Just a few months before the world premiere, we discuss this La Monnaie commission with the composer and his librettist Peter van Kraaij.

THE NOVEL

Peter Van Kraaij: The Time of Our Singing tells the story of an American family made up of a black woman, Delia Daley, a white (Jewish) man, David Strom, and their three children: Jonah, Joey, and Ruth. The family is always singing or playing music, and the children soon prove to have as much musical talent as their mother, for whom a professional career was unthinkable because of the colour of her skin. Opportunities do present themselves for her children, however, and certainly for Jonah, who possesses an exceptional tenor voice. The brothers begin careers in classical music – an eminently ‘white’ world. Their sister, by contrast, becomes an activist with the Black Panthers.

Richard Powers zooms in alternatively on the generation of the parents – who, at the height of the struggle against segregation, have to fight all the usual prejudices against mixed marriages – and the generation of their biracial children – who grow up in the Civil Rights era. Powers gives his book an ingenious structure that refers to David Strom’s profession as a quantum physicist working on the non-linear time. The Time of Our Singing is at once rich in emotion and an intellectual exploration of themes such as civil rights, segregation, identity, and the conflict between art and real life.

Kris Defoort on why he absolutely wanted to put this novel to music.

THE LIBRETTO

P.V.K.: In adapting the book for the libretto, the novel’s ingenious treatment of time was altered in order to make room for a chronological construction. Within that chronology, however, we did keep the great leaps in time that characterise the book.

Kris Defoort: One of Peter van Kraaij’s ideas was to let everyone have their say from the very first act, whereas in the novel Joey is the main narrator. Peter also lets the story unfold chronologically, apart from the first scene, that is, in which the children – who are already adults when we first meet them at the start of the opera – relate how their parents met at Marian Anderson’s historic concert in 1939 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

P.V.K.: That look back becomes the starting point of the libretto: everything that is related is an attempt by the characters to give meaning to what has happened. Just as three important deaths punctuate the book, so too three wakes structure the libretto, three moments when the family tries to come together again. As in so many of Powers’ books, the novel is pervaded by melancholy and even a sense of mourning. Powers constantly uses musical references in his descriptions of how the characters deal with loss and the related political events, which is fascinating.

THE OPERA

K.D.: Although Peter van Kraaij had to make a lot of cuts, he took into account the musicality of Powers’ language, which was very important to me. This is the first time I composed an opera on a classically structured libretto with quite a lot of dialogue. It also contains many elements that can bring about a ‘movement’ in the music and recount something different. In musical terms, my opera will give voice to my own world. You can’t pin it down to a particular style. Besides the classical orchestra, there are also jazz musicians. Spoken and sung text will alternate. In my search for a balance between the two, I regularly ask the question as to why a particular passage calls out to be sung. Actually, I aim for nothing less than what Mozart once wrote: to move people to tears with music.

P.V.K.: The scenography in Ted Huffman’s production is based on the concept of public space – a space in which history, both on the ground scale and on a more intimate scale, can be evoked, a space in which people come together and a story is told.

K.D.: The Time of Our Singing covers much of the twentieth century. To my mind, it doesn’t happen often that a contemporary opera is so profoundly rooted in the ‘now’ and yet raises so many universal themes.

P.V.K.: Those themes include identity, being uprooted, and how to find a place for oneself in society. In the process, the relation between art and society is scrutinised. Delia and David’s three children each follow a different path in this respect: Jonah seeks refuge, as it were, in music and Ruth only sees solace in social commitment, while Joey tries to reconcile those two paths. The opera makes clear that the socially relevant themes it deals with are highly complex and that art is a way of telling stories that does justice to this complexity.

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