Operatic Women

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Violeta and Sylvia on screen and barge

By Judy Gelman Myers

When Salvador Allende first addressed his citizenry after winning Chile's 1970 presidential election, he did so under a sign that read, "No Hay Revolución sin Cancion": There is no revolution without songs. In this case, those songs would have been nueva canción, or "new song," a quasi-political artistic movement spearheaded by the explosive, self-destructive, magnificent Violeta Parra. Chilean director Andrés Wood's examines Parra's politics, art, and interior life in his new, lyrical biopic, Violeta Went to Heaven.

As a child, Parra supported her mother and nine siblings by singing folk tunes in the plazas of small towns; as an adult, she crisscrossed Chile meticulously collecting and cataloguing indigenous folk material. When she moved to Santiago, Parra turned her musical talents to traditionally-based but highly innovative songwriting protesting North American cultural imperialism while celebrating Chilean identity and the rights of workers and native populations. Like Searching for Sugar Man's Sixto Rodriguez, whose idiosyncratic songs became a symbol of resistance for the white anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, Parra became an icon of social resistance in Chile and beyond.

At heart, however, Parra was not a political revolutionary but an artist, and it's this heart that Wood explores in Violeta. His two major challenges were capturing Parra's music and private pain. By eschewing traditional linear narrative in favor of episodic storytelling that shifts back and forth in time, as interior worlds are wont to do, Wood created an elusive effect that fits his enigmatic subject. When it came to delivering Parra's songs, Wood discovered that most of her original recordings were in such bad shape that they couldn't be used for the film. Moreover, he wanted to create a soundtrack that had its own identity rather than being a copy. After casting the captivating Francisco Gavilan as Violeta, Wood held a casting call for voices. Gavilan showed up for the casting call, and Wood decided to let her sing, a move that proved decisive for both the actress and the film.

Wood admits to feeling intimated by the idea of portraying the interior life of a woman deemed Chile's national cultural treasure, but he forged on nonetheless. "I didn't think about my personal responsibility to the subject, because if I had, I wouldn't have done the film," he says. Violeta Went to Heaven is playing at the Quad and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

For fifty-two weeks a year, four days a week, New Yorkers can find chamber music in all its forms-early, canonical, and contemporary-right under the Brooklyn Bridge. There, Bargemusic offers 220 concerts annually, even tendering weekly free tickets to groups and one free concert monthly in order to reach as many music lovers as possible.

Normally Bargemusic presents chamber music, recitals, and quartets in their coffee-barge-turned-intimate-concert-hall, but on March 21 and 22, as part of their contemporary composers series, they took the unusual step of mounting an opera: Sylvia, a chamber opera in one act, for four voices and three instrumentalists. Based on the true story of a 13-year-old girl who is coerced by a friend of her parents' into having an affair with him, the opera depicts the psychotherapy that ultimately brings Sylvia to psychic and emotional health.

Mounted in concert form, Sylvia was one year in production before making its world premiere at Bargemusic. Simple but striking staging enhanced the inherent drama of a young girl on the verge of womanhood who is grappling not only with her own sexuality but also with the psychological responsibility of being a second-generation Holocaust survivor: her seducer, like her parents, was born to parents who had survived the camps. Sylvia understands his pain; with the empathetic tenderness of youth, she wants to ease his suffering. With great clarity, composer and librettist Julia Adolphe encapsulates Sylvia's dilemma in a plaintive cry: "What was it you needed? What did you think a thirteen-year-old girl would know?"

Much of Sylvia's seduction was played out at a Passover seder, so Adolphe incorporates a creepy Hebrew rendition of the first of the four questions, Why is this night different from all other nights? In one of the opera's highlights, Sylvia sings her own response over the traditional, albeit altered, chant: "On this night I am different. I am disgusting. I thought I could give him freedom, so I became his slave. Oh God, pass over this house: There's blood on the door."

With a degree in literary theory as well as multiple degrees in music composition, Adolphe shapes her musical phrases to emphasize the linguistic, rather than musical, content of words. Concomitantly, she employs the timbre of her instruments-clarinet, sax, cello, and piano-to bring out the interiority of Sylvia's torment and ultimate redemption.

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