On the evening of March 8, 2020, local health officials confirmed the first presumed case of COVID-19 in San Diego County. The next morning, San Diego Opera became the first local arts organization to announce the cancellation of a major production due to what would become the global pandemic that may finally be coming to an end.
Now, two years and two months to the day after San Diego Opera’s originally planned production of “Aging Magician” was set for its local debut, the genre-bending chamber opera will finally get its long-overdue West Coast premiere. It plays Friday and Saturday, May 13 and 14 at the Balboa Theater in the Gaslamp Quarter.
David Bennett, San Diego Opera’s general director, said he’s happy that local audiences will finally have the opportunity to experience the production.
“I was excited to bring ‘Aging Magician’ to San Diego two years ago, and I remain so today,” he said. “It’s a unique work … beautiful, haunting, fascinating, charming and like nothing our audience has seen before.”
The 2016 opera by composer Paola Prestini and librettist-performer Rinde Eckert is being presented as part of San Diego Opera’s Detour Series of edgier, nontraditional work. The 90-minute piece — performed by Eckert, the 27-member Brooklyn Youth Chorus and the Grammy-winning Attacca Quartet — blends song, choral and chant music, spoken text, puppetry and performance art as well as improvisational sounds on a giant handmade instrument sculpture that fills most of the stage.
It’s the whimsical, fantastical, time-twisting story of a dying clockmaker-repairman who plumbs his memories and dreams to imagine himself a wise magician who must pass on his treasured book of magical spells to a younger protégé before he passes. Eckert plays the clockmaker-magician Harold, who travels between reality and fantasy, and the children represent the angels in Harold’s head guiding and prodding him to the next world.
Beth Morrison, whose production company Beth Morrison Projects originated the piece, said she’s grateful to San Diego Opera for its continued commitment to the piece.
“’Aging Magician’… is a balm for the wounds we have felt as a nation,” Morrison said. “I have admired the work that San Diego Opera has been doing both pre-pandemic, as well as during the pandemic with the outside-the-box lens they are using to create and present work for our time.”
In a previous phone interview, Morrison said the piece has appeal for all ages because while it deals with the serious subject of death and dying, it involves child singer-actors who tease and shepherd Harold along in his journey to heaven.
“It’s very whimsical and joyful and also very profound,” said Morrison, whose company has been a pioneer in the field of contemporary American opera over the past 16 years. “It’s about legacy and wanting to leave something behind of yourself that will have some sort of impact on the world.”
Reviews for “Aging Magician” have been universally positive. In the opera’s world premiere six years ago, New York Times opera critic Anthony Tommasini described Prestini’s choral work as “ethereal, unfolding in long-spun lines and chantlike phrases. Yet there are complex stretches of cluster chords that the choristers sing with precision.”
“Aging Magician” was the result of an eight-year creative collaboration between Morrison, Prestini, Eckert, director Julian Crouch and instrument designer Mark Stewart. Prestini said she’s proud of the piece because it’s the result of so many diverse creative voices working together as a team with the time and freedom to fine-tune it to perfection.
“It’s always difficult to put work out in the world, so for this piece to unanimously hit a nerve was a great moment of validation for me,” Prestini said. “I was happy that people got to see a piece where I was really involved in all aspects, from the dramaturgical to the unified team, and Beth (Morrison) and I have worked together for so long.”
Prestini, who was named an innovator on Musical America’s Top 30 Professionals of the Year list in 2016, hand-picked her “Aging Magician” team from a list of fellow New York artists who she said most inspired her, particularly Eckert.
“Render I had seen perform in ‘And God Created Great Whales’ when I was a student at Juilliard 20 years ago,” she said. “I was so moved by his ability to be a composer, a performer, an improviser and an actor at the same time. That sense of multiplicity was something I was struggling to enter myself as an artist.”
Prestini said she wanted to write choral work for the accomplished Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and she was “floored” by the past design work of Brooklyn-based director-designer-puppeteer Crouch in “Satyagraha” and “Akhenaten” at the Metropolitan Opera. Her score by Ella is a 21-song cycle of solo and choral works interspersed with string quartet music. Her favorite sections of her are the pieces she wrote for the the esteemed invitation-only youth choir.
“The choir is singing very complex clusters of chords at times, but you can hear it because it’s so pure,” she said.
The original seed for the opera’s story was the short story “If the aging magician should begin to believe” by Brooklyn author Jonathan Safran Foer. In its first incarnation, the opera involved a dying magician contemplating his impending death on a gondola ride on the river Styx. Unsatisfied with the libretto’s dramatic limitations, Eckert said he rewrote and expanded the story to make it more universal, more mysterious and more elliptical. As the librettist and star of the piece, he also made it more personal.
“I have an affinity for Harold, and I find there are a couple things in there that are related to me,” Eckert said of his character. “My work has often revolved around a kind of isolated dreamer and a kind of marginalization. I’m always on the edge of almost every genre. There’s this notion of the straight and narrow and the boxes people want to put you in. I’ve never been able to stay in those boxes. Harold is also in this situation where he’s supposed to be a clock repairman, but he’s being drawn by his passions from him that have no particular place in this world. ”
In Eckert’s libretto, Harold is in a dreamlike state of transition between life and death when he re-creates a favorite day from his childhood where he spent an blissful afternoon at Coney Island with his father. Harold’s father would suffer a fatal heart attack on the subway ride home that afternoon, so in Harold’s mind he, Coney Island represents heaven. As he grows older, Harold’s unhappy profession of working with clocks becomes a metaphor for repetition, eternity and, ultimately, renewal.
“There’s a crisis that Harold faces for us. I think the reason that it has resonance for people is that they understand the deep metaphors and poetic gestalt of the piece,” Eckert said. “There’s the sadness of the end of one life, but then there’s the sense of the life being picked up by a younger and fresher self… the wonderful sense of us moving through our grief and finding new life.”
Once the score and libretto came together, director Crouch brought a sense of whimsy and playfulness to the story with a concept that involves the child choristers doing shadow, hand and character puppetry and moving up and around a set of bleacher-like steps that resemble the 19th-century operation theaters where medical students would watch live surgeries.
The final touch was the giant instrument that Bang on a Can All-Stars co-founder Stewart crafted from found objects like bicycle wheels, zithers, hubcaps, cymbals and gears that together resemble a giant clockwork sculpture of Eckert’s face and hands. Eckert improvises on the giant instrument as Harold transitions to death.
Morrison said she sees pieces like “Aging Magician” as the future of American opera, and she said transformational companies like San Diego Opera are leading the way in producing these new works.
“Opera is a deeply difficult at form,” Morrison said. “It’s so expensive. I think over time we’ll see less and less companies able to do the big ‘Aidas’ or ‘Ring’ cycles. What these smaller-scale pieces afford is the audience having an intimate experience with the performers. It’s so immediate. People find it very visceral, thrilling and exciting.”
San Diego Opera: “Aging Magician”
when: 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 13. 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 14.
Where: Balboa Theatre, 868 Fourth Ave., Gaslamp Quarter
tickets: $35 and up
Telephone: (619) 533-7000