Chicago Opera Theater Presents THE LIFE AND DEATH(S) OF ALAN TURING Review—Opera History Sneak Peek

Chicago Opera Theater THE LIFE AND DEATH(S) OF ALAN TURING
Here, during the weeklong workshop, Conductor Lidiya Yankovskay confers with American Lyric Theater's Lawrence Edelson Photo: Mike Grittani

Silence—feeling as long as five seconds—seemed to underline that we in the audience were now a part of opera history. This was the end of a performance in DePaul’s spanking new dark wood paneled Gannon Music Hall capping a weeklong workshop of The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing by composer Justine F. Chen and librettist David Simpatico. Though still a work-in-progress, there are already so many moments of transporting music in this work that one can’t imagine- or at least this reviewer can’t—that ..Turing won’t some day be on the calendar of one of the world’s great opera houses, though likely transformed by this weeklong work shop process and the audience feedback session at its conclusion.

Immediately before this profound silence coda, we had heard another reprise of the murmuring chorus performed with precision by Northwestern’s Bienen Contemporary Early Vocal Ensemble. Somewhat reminding of a muffled Balinese Monkey Chant, we hear the occasional clear word emerge from the sound blur. Sometimes these choral refrains seem to be giving voice to the zeitgeist of the times, such as when World War II is brewing. At other times, they seem like bubblings from a stream of consciousness, which this writer can imagine as the soundtrack of Turing’s brilliant mind solving problems during his famed long distance runs.

For those who don’t know Turing’s story, he was an ace mathematician who helped birth computer science and antecedents of the AI that is now so rapidly changing our world. Like many mathematical geniuses of his time- in both UK and America-he was pressed into service during World War II as head of a cryptography team charged with breaking the Germany’s “Enigma Code”. Instead of the bottomless plaudits that was his due, Turing— an unabashed homosexual at a time when this sexual orientation was illegal in the UK—was condemned to chemical castration and a few years later found dead. If you too blink in disbelief that this institutional cruelty and derangement was going down during the prime years of our Greatest Generation, it might be worth remembering that at the same time African-Americans weren’t allowed to be integrated into the fighting forces with white soldiers and— though it may be apocryphal—many young mathematically trained soldiers were kept out of the cryptographer ranks because they were Jewish.

We learned in the post-show discussion with the opera’s creators hosted by sponsoring American Lyric Theater’s Artistic Director Lawrence Edelson that it was Simpatico’s brilliant stroke to recognize Turing’s dramatic story as an ideal match for the opera genre. Bravo!

Chicago Opera Theater THE LIFE AND DEATH(S) OF ALAN TURING
Composer Justine F. Chen Photo: Steven Laxton

For this writer though, it is the richness in musical gems that most gave the goose bumps one gets when you feel like you are in the midst of a historical moment that might be treasured by posterity. The chorus not only murmurs, but has especially memorable melody eruptions in the style of the Andrews Sisters that help to tell the story of Turing’s cryptographic team breaking the Nazi code. Both a mezzo-soprano with soprano duet in the opera’s Act II, and a trio by baritone, tenor and bass-baritone in Act I struck this writer as standouts. The latter especially reminded of so many opera moments that do little to tell the story but rather let you just savor the score. This is great stuff!  And the top shelf performers- all—gave this opera-in-the-works the TLC it rightly deserves.

Chicago Opera Theater Gives Patrons a Peek at Opera History

Perhaps for many the biggest thrill of this COT event was being able to peek in on opera history, thanks to COT’s collaboration with American Lyric Theater, an organization devoted to cultivating new operas akin to how Chicago Dramatists nurtures playwrights.

The post-show discussion, which included solicitations of the audience to answer specific questions from the composer and librettist, was in fact very much like a Chicago Dramatists discussion after one of its weekly staged readings. For those of us who were already deeply engaged by …Turing, it’s downright exciting to ponder how the creators might change it and where it will all end up as a result of this weeklong workshop and audience feedback in this public performance.

COT regulars who go back a few years may find the similarity of Simpatico’s fictional Turing to the Simon Powers character in MIT ‘s Death and the Powers opera of interest.  This is poetic license it would seem. Similarly, those who know a bit more about the history of computer science might have a few hard swallows with the anachronisms in the story. Then again, in this writer’s view, if Puccini can show us dramatic deaths in the desert of New Orleans it would seem this stellar opera-in-the-works should be allowed a walk on the wild side too.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Music by Justine F. Chen

Libretto by David Simpatico

Conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya

Chorus Master Donald Nally

Commissioned by American Lyric Theater Lawrence Edelson, Producing Artistic Director

Cast:

Jonathan Michie;  Jonas Hacker; Diana Newman; Vince Wallace; Elise Quagliata; Arnold Geis; David Salsbery; Samantha Schmid;  BCE Vocal Ensemble of Northwestern University

Orchestra:

Lauren Cless; Cristina Buciu; Elizabeth Huffman; Maria Arrau; Carol Yampolsky; Carolyn Slack ; Ben Weber; Ai Melby; Oana Tatu; Mark Djordjevic; Matt Agnew; Sara Sitz ;Nazar Dzhuryn; Victor Sotelo; Tim Shaffer; Jason Niehoff; Scott Metlicka; Eliza Bangert; Anna Velzo; Jeremy Ruthrau; Karl Rzasa; Steve Replogle; Ross Beacraft; Adam Moen; Dan Anderson; Lillian Lau; Keth Hampton; David Victor; Daniel Won

Chorus- Bienen Contemporary Early Vocal Ensemble:

Kira Neary; Molly Phelan; Olivia Prendergast; Kathryn Riopel; Emma Rothfield; Tiana Sorenson; Grace Wipfli; Joseph Badion; Jeremy Edelstein; Paul Hunter; Henry Koch; Chris LaMountain; Pablo Laucerica; Russell Pinzino; Jack Reeder; Gabrielle Barkidjija; Aryssa Burrs; Lucy Evans; Lauren Kelly; Kandise Le Blanc; Anna Ucik; Walter Aldrich; Elio Bucky; Matthew Cramer; Corey Everly; Bradley Fielding; Nick Hauger; Kyle Jensen; Zachary Kurzenberger; Andrew Major

Photos: Mike Grittani, unless otherwise indicated

For more information visit the American Lyric Theater website.

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