Senior Louis Weeks' opera breathed new life into the problematic and controversial narrative of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" Wednesday night in Studzinski Recital Hall.
"Feuds: A Chamber Opera for Soloist, Chamber Choir and Modified Chamber Ensemble" is the product of Weeks' honors project in composition, an undertaking he has been working on all year under the guidance of Associate Professor of Music Vineet Shende.
Weeks' piece is an original operatic score in two movements with seven distinct parts. The Bowdoin Chamber Choir, led by Professor of Music Robert Greenlee, and six instrumentalists—including Shende on guitar and Visiting Artist in Residence George Lopez in the piano—performed in the opera.
The opera features two student soloists—Eileen Palmer '11, a soprano, and Noah Gavil '14, a tenor. The soloist performances were accompanied by the voices of Maryellen Hearn '11, an alto, and Henry Hoagland '12, a baritone.
"Feuds" certainly diverges from what the typical opera fan might expect; the piece blends together a cacaphony of sounds, voices and genres that create its distinctive sound.
"I have a lot of fun with genre and with established musical form," said Weeks. "Every decision that I made always came from the text so any time I got stuck with the music I tried to find other aspects of the text that might point me in the right direction," Weeks continued, adding that Shende was the biggest help in pushing him through troubling moments.
Audience members took note of the experimental form of Weeks' opera.
"I was expecting something a little more ethereal, but it was more experimental and creative," said Luis Beltran '13.
Jordan Francke '13, a member of the Chamber Choir, spoke of the use of dissonance in the composition.
"Unlike traditional operas that focus on harmonies, Louis' piece is more preoccupied with dissonance, which is really hard to sing. It's also interesting to watch the audience and wonder if they think we're singing the wrong note," said Francke. "It's a cool alternative interpretation of opera."
Weeks gained inspiration for the opera primarily from two chapters of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" that chronicle the feud of the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons, two seemingly irreconcilable families that Huck Finn gets caught up in.
"Feuds" includes no original lyrics; rather, it draws from pieces of music and verse specifically related to Twain's canonical text.
The first musical adaptation of the opera is a 19th century song originally composed by William Clifton titled "The Last Link is Broken." Weeks draws directly from Clifton's lyrics, shifting and inverting their original arrangement.
The second adaptation of the opera relies heavily upon the narrative framework of Franz Kotzwara's 1788 piano sonata "Battle of the Prague." This portion of the opera includes a piano whose innards are altered with screws, wood, and rubber in order to echo the sound of the piano full of tin pans that Huck finds in the Grangerford house.
The opera also draws from a poem titled "Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec'd," an original poem by the deceased Emmeline Grangerford and "Psalm 133," a nod to the irony of the feuding families' staunch church attendance.
An altered tango titled "Half-Past Two" also comments on the confusion of the inter-domestic conflict. The opera concludes with an adaptation of Allen Tate's poem "Ode to the Confederate Dead."
Weeks explained that the inclusion of the Tate poem is an ode to the silent violence of the text.
"There is a section of the book where there is a lot of silence concerning the violence that takes place in the text and so I use this piece about stumbling upon a confederate grave site, [to access] violence in the past," he said.
The meditative mood of the performance pushes the audience to re-imagine the past, and mimics the haunting silence of the text regarding episodes of violence in the South.
"He [Twain] straddles the humor and the seriousness in a way that I find very refreshing," said Weeks.
"I think that's how he's able to get away with handling topics like violence and death and injustice without being too heavy-handed. He uses humor to invite a type of serious reflection that I think wouldn't be possible without the humor," Weeks said.
Weeks said that Shende helped him find a balance between comedy and solemnity in his composition.
"There was one particular movement that went through several rounds of editing because it was fluctuating between too funny and, conversely, too serious," said Weeks. "It took a long time, and a lot of help, to figure out how to musically depict Twain's dark humor, his irony and his wit."
Access Services Assistant at Hawthorne-Longfellow Library Jaime Jones detected the potently subtle spirit of Twain's work that Weeks worked to emulate.
"I was very impressed with how well the performers did with a difficult piece, Huck's reaction to the family feud brought out the emotions of those scenes very well," said Jones.
Weeks' composition is just one of many upcoming student performances that will debut as the academic year winds to a close.
"I would strongly encourage everyone to see Sam Waterbury and Jimmy Pasch's performance on May 3, 7:30 p.m. in Kanbar Auditorium, Studzinski Hall," said Weeks.