Opera Illuminates a Mythical Vermont Town

  • Erik Nielsen, composer of the opera A Fleeting Animal, stands across the street from his home in Brookfield, Vt.Valley News — Sarah Priestap

  • Mary Bonhag, left, and Sarah Cullins rehearse a scene from A Fleeting Animal. The opera is to be performed in six locations, including Woodstock and Randolph.Isabel Weinger Nielsen photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2015
It’s been 15 years since A Fleeting Animal: An Opera from Judevine, a collaboration between composer Erik Nielsen and poet and writer David Budbill, was first produced by the Vermont Opera Theater of Montpelier.

Based on Budbill’s suite of poems about a mythical northern Vermont t own that, like other rural places in America, has seen a loss of jobs and an emptying out, A Fleeting Animal is also, as far as Nielsen knows, the only American opera set in Vermont.

Now the work has a second life, thanks to a revised production touring the state. A Fleeting Animal will be performed Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Woodstock Town Hall and on Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph. It’s already been seen at the Barre Opera House, and in Colchester and Hardwick. In addition to the Woodstock and Randolph performances this weekend, another is planned for Saturday at the Vergennes Opera House.

When Nielsen began thinking in the late 1990s about writing an opera, he knew he wanted to set it in Vermont. “This is home, this is where I’ve lived for 26 years,” he said in an interview in his Brookfield home.

Nielsen graduated from Bennington College with a degree in composition and did graduate work at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Conn. He’s composed chamber music, works for chorus, orchestra, wind ensembles and solo instruments, and dance, film and electronic music.

But he’d never tried his hand at opera until he got a commission in 1999 from the Vermont Opera Theater. The subject was his to choose.

“I looked around and looked around and nothing hit me like Judevine ,” Nielsen said. “I wanted to show Judevine with its ups and downs, its sense of community, and the fracturing in it; the joy of living through the good summers and the endurance to live through harder times.”

Budbill had been writing about Judevine, which he describes as “the ugliest town in northern Vermont,” since the 1970s. In 1991 , Chelsea Green Publishing released a collection of Budbill’s Judevine poems. Nielsen and Budbill decided to focus the opera, which is set in the 1970s, on the love affair between Tommy, a Vietnam veteran who is experiencing what’s now called post traumatic stress disorder, and Grace, a tough-minded single mother with three children. Adam Hall sings Tommy, and Lebanon native Mary Bonhag sings Grace.

Johnny Lee Green and Thomas Beard sing the roles of James and William, two African-American veterans, friends of Tommy, who visit and are thrust into the realities of life in a state that is predominantly white.

So, not a tea party at Downton Abbey.

But, says Nielsen, the opera, for eight principals and eight chorus members, is “really rounded. It’s not just, ‘Oh, it’s a tragedy, everything’s sad.’ It goes up and down like rural life. These characters could be your neighbors. I think. If possible. I love the characters more now than I did 15 years ago.”

As part of the revision, Budbill and Nielsen jettisoned some lines and scenes that hadn’t worked the first time around. But the themes that underlie the opera are, if anything, even more resonant and present in 2015 than they were 15 years ago. Class, race, violence, isolation, the limited economic opportunities of rural life, an influx of outsiders into an insular place and the fears of a culture changing so rapidly that the people of Judevine will be left behind.

“All that stuff now is 36 point type, all caps, all the time,” Nielsen said.

What art, and this opera, can do that, say, a conference on race and class, or the comments section on any Internet forum, can’t, Nielsen said, is to “reach people on a deeper level in a way that lectures can’t. The characters are so realistic and sympathetic.”

Mary Bonhag, who plays Grace, grew up in Lebanon, studying with Erma Mellinger, a voice teacher at Dartmouth College. Bonhag, who now lives in Warren, Vt., said that what sets A Fleeting Animal apart from other operas is “that it portrays the stories of a lot of people, not just in Vermont, but in rural society living on the fringes ... who don’t usually get their stories told.”

How does one compose an opera set in Vermont? Or does it matter?

It doesn’t necessarily mean adapting folksy music or country and western for the operatic stage. Rather, Nielsen sought out a variety of sources, from jazz to blues to Quebecois folk music to love songs that, he said, sound like “21st century Puccini — soaring, lush love music.”

“I tried to make the music fit the situation and the characters. Where things are tense, tragic or humorous it sounds that way,” Nielsen said.

Now 65, Nielsen was 25 when he first thought about composing an opera. Raised in Canaan, N.Y., on the state’s eastern border with Massachusetts, he grew up in a household where the family listened to classical music, American musicals and opera frequently. But Nielsen wasn’t as keen on opera as his parents were.

“I’d say, ‘What is this about?’ ” Nielsen said.

But then he saw on public television a Live from the Met production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni , with James Morris singing the Don, and was bowled over, both by opera as an art form and by Mozart’s masterpiece.

“It’s a theatrical art, a combination of music and theater. It’s kind of hard to envision without seeing it. It’s like coming at Shakespeare only through reading the plays: they’re meant to be seen and staged.”

Indeed, Mozart’s renown for composing ensemble pieces for quartets, quintets and sextets ultimately influenced Nielsen as he set about writing music for the characters in A Fleeting Animal .

Also figuring in some way into Nielsen’s scoring were the operas Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten, also about a small, rural, not always forgiving community, and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov , for its realistic speech patterns, which are sung and spoken, and its nimble alternation between the humorous and the serious.

Because so much of the story and opera are rooted in the experiences of Tommy, the Vietnam War veteran, the creators and producers have partnered with the Department of Veterans Affairs in both Burlington and White River Junction. There will be discussions after each performance with clinicians experienced in talking to veterans, and vets themselves. The performances come with an advisory that some scenes in the opera may be disturbing to the audience.

In all, no matter what the era or setting, certain fundamentals apply in opera, or indeed any written or performed art form. “I think a lot about living and human nature hasn’t changed much,” Nielsen said.

There are also two companion art shows, one at the Chandler Center Downstairs Gallery in Randolph and the second at the Barre Opera House, that bounce off the themes of the opera.

“F leeting Moments: Why We Go On” is at the Chandler Center Downstairs Gallery in Randolph through September 27. Thirteen Vermont artists are featured in this exhibit. It includes photography, sculpture, poetry, and art made from the pulp of recycled combat uniforms.

The Barre Opera House exhibition, which includes work by 16 artists and poets, runs through Oct. 3.

For information on the opera and tickets, go to eriknielsenmusic.com/opera/fleeting-animal-updates.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.