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Shakespeare’s Lear gets an Eastman Opera makeover

Performers rehearse Lear on the Second Floor
Luke Juntunen
/
Photo provided
Actors rehearse Lear on the 2nd Floor ahead of the dress rehearsals.

The smell of sawdust lingered in the Kilbourn Hall air last week. On a stage where productions generally eschew ornamentation, a set was being constructed. Doorways, stone ledges, large blocks of faux marble. A rectangular hole that doubles as a bathtub and a grave. Furtive lighting that illuminates a sense of gloom.

And at the back of the stage is a curtain – actually, a gauzy scrim – behind which the Kilbourn audience will catch glimpses of a modest orchestra, and on the front of which is projected a whorl of gray matter.

Agitated gray matter, suggestive of a brain in turmoil.

This is the Eastman Opera Theatre’s ambitious production of “Lear on the 2nd Floor,” opening Thursday and running through Sunday.

Performers rehearse Lear on the Second Floor
Luke Juntunen
/
Photo provided
Actors rehearse Lear on the 2nd Floor ahead of the dress rehearsals.

It is what has been called – to borrow a phrase uttered by a few of the people involved with it over the years – “a riff on ‘King Lear.’”

“What makes this really good theater, it’s challenging but it doesn’t … ” Steven Daigle pauses, in a search for the precise answer. Which will be perfectly imprecise. “You never want to feed an audience all the answers. You want them to question what they’ve seen.”

Daigle is professor of opera at the Eastman School of Music, and artistic director for the school’s Eastman Opera Theatre. There seem to be no college hijinks here; Daigle conducts the Kilbourn rehearsals with the no-nonsense attitude that will be expected of the students as professionals. There is a sense of end here. Daigle is retiring, and “Lear on the 2nd Floor” will be the final show he does at Eastman. Along with Tim Long, associate professor of opera at Eastman and music director of Eastman Opera Theatre, in this 90-minute opera they’re tackling the arts-old question of: What does it mean to you?

Performers rehearse Lear on the Second Floor
Luke Juntunen
/
Photo provided
Actors rehearse Lear on the 2nd Floor ahead of the dress rehearsals.

“What happens is, with our imaginative human minds as an audience, we tend to fill in the gaps with our own experience,” Long says. “And it becomes a complete whole.”

As a starting point, “King Lear” is perhaps the most tragic of Shakespeare’s tragedies. But the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Anthony Davis and playwright Allan Havis have modernized the story. Shakespeare’s Lear was a mythical king whose three daughters’ machinations over their fading father’s kingdom lead to war and lots of poisonings, duels and suicides. In the version created by Davis and Havis, the lead character, Dr. Nora Lear, is losing her memory to Alzheimer’s disease as her three children battle for control of the powers once wielded by their mother, an acclaimed neuroscientist.
“Nora’s mind is her own character, that’s played by a soprano who has no words, and improvises throughout the opera,” Long says. “Sort of, again, riffing with the orchestra, and she represents what is going on inside Nora’s mind as she tries to speak, as she tries to continue the life that she had.”

The genre is opera. Yet opera has come a long way since the Valkyries of Richard Wagner. Or, at least, it has run off in different directions. Long references the presence of musical idioms as the story unfolds. Blues, reggae, Burt Bacharach, “a sonority of sounds.” At one point, the three sisters chirp like the Andrews Sisters.

“I think it is opera in the 21st century,” Long says. “If you picture opera only in the 19th and 18th century, it is not that. But we wouldn’t be here without that, all of that has led us to this.”

And what is this? Unlike Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” a family drama that threatens to destroy a kingdom, the focus of “Lear on the 2nd Floor” is a private family drama. It’s estimated that 6 million Americans are currently afflicted by Alzheimer’s, which is the most common form of dementia.

“First of all, the study of Alzheimer’s, it’s not all that old,” Long says. “And Dr. Nora Lear is a specialist in this. So it’s ironic that she is giving a speech about this, and she’s having occurrences of memory loss from the beginning.”

Performers rehearse Lear on the Second Floor
Luke Juntunen
/
Photo provided
Actors rehearse Lear on the 2nd Floor ahead of the dress rehearsals.

Daigle points out that as the audience travels through Dr. Lear’s memory, the journey is not linear. Each scene stands on its own.

“We don’t know where we are,” he says. “The second floor of a memory ward is kind of the main focus of this, but are we seeing all these scenes as complete? Are we seeing her all in her mind, and she’s reliving it within this sort of memory ward?”

Lear is frustrated and trying to hold on to past memories. “And also trying to find peace, and being delivered to the point of death,” Daigle says.

The audience must keep in mind that these scenes are playing out on the unstable field of Lear’s mind. “There’s a real movement, between these sort of abstract realities to lucid moments,” Daigle says. “I don’t know if that makes sense…”

“It makes perfect sense,” Long says, “if you’ve gone through it.”

And they have gone through it.

“My mother is 89, and has dementia. She’s in a nursing home,” Long says. “A lot of us have that.”

For Daigle, it’s an uncle with Alzheimer’s. And his mother-in-law was once a wordsmith, he says, winning all the board games involving words. Now in her mid-70s, “For her it came pretty early, and she faltered quickly,” Daigle says.

So this is personal. For Daigle, Long and, very likely, the audience.

“There are so many people these days dealing with loved ones who have Alzheimer’s or dementia,” Long says, “that I think people will find great connection to this. So in a way, it comes off as a meditation on the experience of Alzheimer’s.”

“When you go through situations like this, you often feel you are the only one on Earth,” Long says. “Having experienced it, it can be a very lonely thing. Seeing a piece like this, you get a little validation of what you’ve gone through or are going through. Or what you might go through as well. I think it’s incredibly important as a human to share this way.”

He calls such introspection “a balm.” Long sees parallels here in “Our Town.” That Thornton Wilder play ends in a cemetery, with the dead reflecting on their lives. “In the end, there is a sense of relief,” he says. “And again, for somebody that’s gone through it, there is almost a sense of happiness in that relief.”

The philosophy seems to have drifted from Shakespeare to Thoreau.

“A journey that we all take,” Daigle says. “We all end, right?"

“It’s life,” Long says. “It’s life for so many of us. I think about that question a lot, honestly. I’ve lost so many people in the last few years. And it takes you on an existential ride. And I would say that’s what it is, an existential ride. I don’t even want to define it as a tragedy. It’s part of life. And it’s one of those important life experiences that give us depth, and give us meaning, and I think that encompasses all emotions."

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.