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Poppaea – Second Opera by Composer Michael Hersch – Receives World Premiere in Basel (Sep 10 & 12)

It was Michael Hersch’s first opera, On the Threshold of Winter, that prompted the New Yorker to observe: “Hersch, now in his second decade as one of the most prominent composers in the country, writes masterly modernist music of implacable seriousness.” Now the American composer looks forward to the world and Austrian premieres of his second. Commissioned by Wien Modern in a co-production with ZeitRäume Basel and Gare du Nord Basel, his one-act opera Poppaea is set to a libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann, offering an original 21st-century take on the story of a Roman Empress, the ways she is abused and silenced, and her own cruelty and desires. Starring soprano Ah Young Hong, who previously served as the “blazing, lone star” (New York Times) of Hersch’s first opera, Poppaea will premiere under Markus Bothe’s direction at Switzerland’s Festival ZeitRäume Basel (Sep 10 & 12), before receiving its first Austrian performances at the Wien Modern Festival (Nov 5–7).

Hersch’s honors include the Rome Prize, Berlin Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He first delved into the troubled history of Nero’s second wife after Ah Young Hong described her complex feelings about performing the title character of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea. A soprano of “fearlessness and consummate artistry” (Opera News), Hong is one of the composer’s closest musical collaborators, so this piqued his interest. He recalls:

“I went home and read as much of the history as I could find. I was stunned by the comprehensive devastation that ultimately befell Poppaea and her world, spaces far removed from the images of grandeur and pageantry of her in triumph.”

Hersch has long used his work to explore themes of violence, suffering and death, so Poppaea’s story resonated with him. He explains:

“In the Neronian age, love, family, friendship, hope, and the pursuit of justice and meaning could come at a particularly high cost. Violence was the primary vehicle for change. And so its presence was a major character in Poppaea’s story; violence and cruelty becoming characters and characteristics that bound the destinies of all involved.”

To collaborate with him on a contemporary retelling of her story, Hersch approached librettist Stephanie Fleischmann, whose previous projects include commissions for Houston Grand Opera, Pittsburgh Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago. Fleischmann found herself similarly drawn to the material. She says:

“Poppaea, like most women of her time, is largely absent from the record. … The extent of this erasure allowed Michael and me to dream into Poppaea, to conjure a many-shaded character on our own terms, to confront her manifold impulses toward violence, in all their terrifying, consternating, and exhilarating contradictions. Choosing to tell Poppaea’s story roughly where Monteverdi’s opera left off, we set about crafting a structure from the events known to us, contending with questions of power and love, ambition and desire, hope and longing, a penchant for mythmaking and the human frailties reflected within those myths, mortality and survival.”

Where tales of antiquity are traditionally told from the male perspective, Hersch and Fleischmann sought to do something different. This struck a chord with Lauren Ginsberg, Associate Professor of Classical Studies at Duke University, who writes:

Poppaea takes us into a world of women. … As a scholar of antiquity, I see within this new work an emotional awakening within the power of their story that began on the stages of ancient Rome but which recognizes a power in female anger that belongs squarely to this century.”

For Hong, this aspect of the work is not only current, but personal. She says:

“This opera allows me to communicate things I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing outside, off the stage, but the stage and this opera in particular afford me an opportunity. There are elements I recognize in what happens to these women. It is frighteningly real to me. Above all, I want to tell this story.”

To bring Poppaea’s story to life, ZeitRäume Basel embarked on its first operatic co-production, joining forces with Wien Modern to assemble a stellar cast and creative team. The opera’s world and Austrian premieres will be directed by Markus Bothe, whose credits include Deutsche Oper Berlin, Semperoper Dresden and Washington National Opera. Australian tenor Steve Davislim, seen in leading parts at the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden and La Scala, will create the role of Nero opposite Ah Young Hong’s headlining performance, with mezzo-soprano Silke Gäng, a finalist at the Robert Schumann International Song Competition, as the emperor’s doomed first wife, Octavia. Also including three handmaidens and a female chorus, the cast will be supported by Ensemble Phoenix, winner of the European Culture Awards’ New Music Ensemble Prize, under the leadership of its founder, leading contemporary music interpreter Jürg Henneberger. Poppaea’s costume design is by Impulse Prize winner Eva Butzkies and its sets by Basel-based architects Heinrich Töws and Ioannis Piertzovanis, with puppetry courtesy of Marius Kob, winner of the Hamburg Theater Prize Rolf Mares Award.

High-resolution photos can be downloaded here.

Michael Hersch: Poppaea, an opera in one act
Music: Michael Hersch
Libretto: Stephanie Fleischmann
World premiere production of Wien Modern commission
Co-produced with ZeitRäume Basel and Gare du Nord Basel

Sep 10 & 12
Basel, Switzerland
Festival ZeitRäume Basel (world premiere)

Nov 5–7
Vienna, Austria
Wien Modern Festival (Austrian premiere)

Poppaea: Ah Young Hong, soprano
Nero: Steve Davislim, tenor
Octavia: Silke Gäng, mezzo-soprano
Ensemble Phoenix
Conductor: Jürg Henneberger
Director: Markus Bothe
Set design: Heinrich Töws and Ioannis Piertzovanis
Costume design: Eva Butzkies
Puppetry: Marius Kob

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© 21C Media Group, August 2021

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