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Michael Hersch’s first opera, “On the Threshold of Winter,” premieres at BAM on June 25

Hailed as “a natural musical genius who continues to surpass himself” (Tim Page, Washington Post), Michael Hersch looks forward to another major career milestone when his first opera, On the Threshold of Winter, receives its world premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on June 25. Marking the American composer’s long-awaited stage debut, his two-act monodrama offers what David Patrick Stearns calls “an unflinching, fearless portrayal of the pain and terror amid the onset of death” (WRTI’s Creatively Speaking). Inspired in part by his own experiences, Hersch adapted his original libretto from The Bridge, the harrowing final poetry collection of Romanian author Marin Sorescu (1936-96), who wrote it during the last five weeks of his own unsuccessful battle with cancer. Scored for soprano and eight-piece ensemble, On the Threshold of Winter will star soprano Ah Young Hong in a fully staged production by Roger Brunyate, supported by Tito Muñoz leading the Nunc ensemble, with the composer himself in attendance.

Musically, the project was bound to prove a perfect fit; as the Philadelphia Inquirer observes, “Hersch’s language never hesitates to leap into the abyss – and in ways that, for some listeners, go straight to parts of the soul that few living composers touch.” Addressing the way, as The Bridge puts it, “the instinct of life battles against the genius of death,” On the Threshold of Winter juxtaposes intense, unsparing contemplation of mortality and loss with lullaby-like interludes depicting those moments when imagination ranges free. As the New Criterion noted last fall, when the composer presented a suite of these interludes in a concert version for voice and piano, “Though it may sound macabre to say, Hersch is very good at writing about death.

Writing for voice is something the composer undertakes only rarely (a recent song cycle, Domicilium, commissioned by Thomas Hampson, was Hersch’s first vocal work in over a decade), because he considers it such a particular medium. “For me there is something about the human voice which cuts to the marrow like nothing else,” he explains. Finding the right project for his first stage work took the best part of two decades, but as soon as Hersch discovered The Bridge – likened by co-translator Adam J. Sorkin to “a dance of death arranged as a procession of still living poems” – the composer knew his search was over. “I read a page and was really taken aback,” he recalls.

“Regarding text of any sort, when something strikes me it’s usually only a word or phrase, but in this case it was line after line. The Bridge is written in poetic form, but it’s essentially a diary of Sorescu’s life written while the poet was dying of liver cancer. It is a fascinating combination of the graphic and fantastical, the clear-eyed and the delusional. From the moment I read it I wanted to draw from these texts to create something for the stage.”

The special immediacy with which The Bridge affected Hersch owes in large part to the constellation of ways cancer has impacted his own life:

“My closest friend received a cancer diagnosis in her late 30s and died of the disease a few years later. The experience of witnessing what she went through is something far from resolved in me. The horror of the entire thing still haunts. Most unexpectedly, while she was in the midst of her fight I then received a cancer diagnosis myself, at age 36. For that period while I underwent my own surgeries, radiation, indignities…the roles were reversed, and she was there for me. Ultimately, I was left cured to go on with my life and she was gone.”

Hersch’s libretto represents a pared-down restructuring of Sorescu’s text. “I stripped away what didn’t resonate and essentially created a narrative within a narrative,” he recounts. Despite being a monodrama, with a single soprano embodying a whole cast of characters, his opera also features a nurse and patient, played by two actors who do not sing or speak. From its opening lines, “Why am I the one who must enter this hospital / While that man passing by / At this very moment / Can proceed on his way?” to its close, “Terrible is the passage / Into the fold / Both for man / And / Animal,” his libretto pulls no punches.

For the upcoming premiere of On the Threshold of Winter, the composer took care to assemble an artistic team in which he could place complete confidence, turning first to his frequent, trusted collaborator, violinist and violist Miranda Cuckson, who is the founder and artistic director of the new-music ensemble Nunc. One of the leading exponents of Hersch’s music, her account of his 14 Pieces prompted the New York Times to declare: “Ms. Cuckson was in her element here. It would be hard to imagine this music played more vividly.” Nunc will be led by Tito Muñoz, recently appointed as music director of the Phoenix Symphony, who also conducted a performance of Hersch’s piano concerto along the ravines this season. Of all the sopranos under consideration it was Ah Young Hong – whose “silvery voice and emotive phrasing” impressed the Baltimore Sun as “touching the heart of the music” – who stood out as best able to capture the particular sounds Hersch had in mind. “From her first audition, she seemed uniquely capable – she seems to intuitively understand the terrain of the material and has the vocal flexibility to achieve it,” he explains. On the Threshold of Winter will be directed by Roger Brunyate, whose championship of new opera includes directing the world premiere of Augusta Read Thomas’s Ligeia at the Evian-les-Bains Festival.

Details of the upcoming premiere of On the Threshold of Winter are provided below, and more information is available at the composer’s web site:



June 25

Brooklyn Academy of Music

Michael Hersch: On the Threshold of Winter 

World premiere

Libretto: Michael Hersch, adapted from The Bridge by Marin Sorescu, in an English translation by Adam J. Sorkin and Lidia Vianu

Director: Roger Brunyate

Soprano: Ah Young Hong

Conductor: Tito Muñoz

Ensemble: Nunc

(Miranda Cuckson, violin; Julia Bruskin, cello; Susan Palma Nidel, flute; Arthur Sato, oboe; Vasko Dukovski, clarinet; Benjamin Fingland, bass clarinet; Matei Varga, piano; Matthew Gold, percussion)

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© 21C Media Group, April 2014

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