Review of Katarzyna Brochocka’s tragigrotesque one act opera „Happy Garden of Life” (audio recording)
This has been a theme used over and over by authors, philosophers and artists alike. The obvious connection to William Shakespeare’s famous line in Hamlet “to be or not to be” is morphed into the short story title “2 B R naught 2 B” by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. This story just gushes with sarcasm which is a Vonnegut trademark. With a running time of around 30 minutes, similar to TV shows, this work doesn’t unfold smoothly; instead it progresses quickly in long strides.
Set in some distant future or altered timeline, this story presents a society that has survived overpopulation burdens through medical science and strict reproductive laws. So strict in fact that if one child is born then someone else must die to keep the system balanced. One consequence is a longer life span reaching well over 100 years old for healthy citizens.
Each character is an archetypal standard we can indentify quickly. The disillusioned artist, the human doormat that has had enough, the criticizing simpleton, the naïve soul, the egocentric demigod and a passionless narrator make up this small cast. Because this is a short story, these characters are not meant to blossom into their archetypes but rather they are each fully developed for good reason. Yes, you feel compassion for the human doormat’s predicament and maybe you hope the egoist is put in his place but this is not the main substance to the story. The real attraction here is the tragic conclusion and the riddle it leaves for you to answer.
This work is performed by a small chamber ensemble equipped with harpsichord, harp and percussion. I immediately envision this piece being well suited for more intimate settings such a small theater or auditorium. This kind of arrangement places considerable emphasis on each musician’s proficiency to accomplish the desired result. Composed in a contemporary style, the overture sets the tone well for this story but the ensemble feels a little loose and don’t come together until well into the intro.
Here is my first concern. Sometimes a composer can employ too much percussion. I have had many conversations on this subject with my long time friend and percussionist Kent Craig (Master of Music degree from the University of Michigan). With such an arsenal of exotic sounds and textures, a fine line exists between musical cohesion and over complication. The percussionists in this piece have one volume setting and that is fortissimo which may be due to a recording issue but their presence become consuming at times. When the feeling that a composer is trying to “fill in the gaps” with percussion occurs I immediately become apprehensive. Yes, percussion is awesome but most effectively utilized when treated judiciously as if you were salting food. Salt to taste, please salt to taste!
Once the ensemble comes together, it is easy to forgive the rough recording quality and focus on the story. With great use of tone color and imagination Brochocka creates an appropriate instrumental tapestry for the libretto to come through. She is composing the music in the same manner as to how Vonnegut combines his words and phrases. It’s lucid but at the same time and it can lead practically anywhere at any moment. That kind of easy digestion of complexity in Brochocka’s music is its finest quality.
This leads me to a second point. The singers’ melodic lines are not very memorable and somewhat dull compared to the accompaniment. It seems like emphasis was placed on the libretto’s clarity by way of minimizing the vocal melody. Some parts are even spoken rather than sung. If that was the intention of the composer then great I get it. Ultimately this approach makes some sections feel deficient or incomplete. At worst it can elude to the vocals lines as a last consideration in the process.
In reviewing this piece I would say ultimately I would like to see it performed live. The characters were comprehensible and the singers performed fittingly. The music reflected the story’s tragedy and weight but at times lacked cohesion between singer and ensemble. The musicians, at first shaky, came together when things progressed. Of course I would have enjoyed a more professional recording but that being said it did not totally diminish my enjoyment overall. Brochocka has created to her credit a piece worthy of merit and hopefully more performances will follow.
Ultimately I am left with the aftermath of the ending. The complex questions left to echo in my mind. At what point does society over regulate? Can the human mind ever truly be happy or does it need sorrow as well? Is Vonnegut making a statement about the artists’ position in society? Is science just as evil and oppressive as a theocracy? It can go on and on but to end this review I leave with this question, 2 C R naught 2 C this work? I would say you have more to gain if you do.
Reviewed by Douglas J. Dennis