The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Composer Jerry Hui talks about his new Internet opera “Wired For Love,” which adapts baroque identity games to the modern on-line world. The world premiere is in Madison this Friday and Saturday.

January 18, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

Few young musicians in Madison, or anywhere for that matter, are as talented or as diverse in their interests as Jerry Hui. He directs and sings in an early music vocal group Eliza’s Toyes and also sings with the Madison Bach Musicians. He is a founding member and director of New MUSE (New Music Everywhere), a University of Wisconsin-Madison student group that performs and promotes new music and stages flash mobs. And he is a composer who is pursuing his doctoral degree at the UW School of Music.

His ambitious doctoral thesis is composing and staging a new opera the plot of which is based on the Internet, but uses the comic an confusing identity games and masks we traditionally identify with Baroque and Classical comic operas. He also incorporates the  more modern aesthetic of using art to promote social progress. John Barker, a critic and colleague who often posts on this blog, wrote a brief introduction to Jerry and his new opera in last week’s Isthmus. Visit: http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=35686

For more about Hui, visit: http://www.musiquenouvelle.com/ or www.jerryhui.com

But Jerry (below) also agreed to a longer email interview with The Ear: 

What are the dates, times, location, duration and tickets of performances of the world premieres of “Wired For Love”?

Wired For Love” will have its world premiere production this week on Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m. in the Carol Rennebohm Auditorium of the UW Music Hall, located on North Park Street at the base of Bascom Hill (below).

Tickets are $15, sold at the door (cash and check only, no credit cards); RSVP is available on http://www.signupgenius.com/go/10C0549A8A928A75-tickets for guaranteed purchase.

The opera lasts about 65 minutes.

There will also be a free pre-concert lecture each night at 7 p.m. On Friday night, the lecture is in Morphy Recital Hall of the Humanities Building and will be “Fraud Awareness & Prevention” by Julie Walser, who is the Loss Prevention and BSA Manager of the UW Credit Union. The Saturday lecture is in Memorial Union (see Today in the Union for the location) and it will focus on “Protecting Your Identity” by Monica Bush, the Security Officer from the UW Campus Information Security Office.

To see more information about “Wired For Love,” visit http://wiredforlove.jerryhui.com.

Can you give readers a brief synopsis and description of the opera “Wired For Love”?

Looking for his next victim, Okoro the Nigerian scammer (countertenor Peter Gruett) goes about his daily business of sending out an e-mail message, under the alias of Bako Ndiovu (tenor Daniel O’Dear). His message reaches an Internet addict in Britain (hereby referred to as “British guy” (baritone James Held), who decides to respond under the guise of an attractive female model by the name of Ethel Wormvarnish (soprano Jennifer Sams). His goal was to keep Okoro from getting to a real victim, and to have a little fun by making a fool out of him.

Thus begins the correspondence between Okoro and the British guy, each trying to outfox the other. While their lies and excuses grow, so do the personalities of their fictional avatars, which gradually develop as they each become aware of both their own and the other’s existence in the cyberspace. (Below, clockwise from left, the cast members are James Held, Daniel O’Dea, Peter Gruett and Jennifer Sams.)

Bako, who began as only Okoro’s avatar, starts to realize on his own he has a desire to come clean about the deception. Ethel, who according to the British guy, is a sassy wild girl who would never settle for just one person, slowly succumbs to the purity of Bako’s heart and to the beauty of his entirely imaginary physique.

While Okoro and the British guy continue their correspondence via the personalities of Bako and Ethel, Bako and Ethel, both increasingly independent, begin struggling to express their yearning for one another. Finally, Bako devises a bold plan to escape: Pretending to complete the scam transaction through a payment, he and Ethyl would finally meet and run away.

How and why did you come up with the idea and how did you bring it to the performance stage?

I first came across the e-mail correspondence that  the opera is based on back in 2003, on the website whatsthebloodypoint.com. This particular story stood out because the fictional avatars are so colorful and improbable, with a dash of romance mixed in.

I was to make this a comic mono-drama for soprano Elaine Niu (below), who was a music doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and who now teaches at St. Norbert College. One aria was written and was recorded by Elaine and the UW Chamber Orchestra. But unsure what to do next, I shelved the project.

It was not until 2009, when I had to choose a Doctor of Musical Arts dissertation project, that I revisited this material again. At the time I was torn between composing a serious opera on the life of the Chinese poet Li Po from the Tang Dynasty, or a comic opera that would pick up where I left off six years before. My composition teacher, Stephen Dembski, strongly encouraged me to compose the latter. Not only is writing funny music a great challenge, there also haven’t been many new comic operas.

Soon I invited fellow student Lisa Kundrat (below) to be a collaborator. Lisa was in the UW’s MFA Creative Writing program, and a Day Fellow at the former Edenfred Artist Residency. We collaborated on an art song before, where I set her words to music. One May afternoon over coffee, we brainstormed on the story, whereby we added the sci-fi twist for the avatars to come alive, and strengthened the romance between them. “Wired For Love” was born.

The libretto was a collaboration that continued for the next year. We read and reviewed the original e-mails, as well as voice mail messages that were sent by the Nigerian scammer (also published online). Some of the numbers will set the original text directly, while others are newly written by us to advance the plot.

We decided to use fairly simple rhyme schemes, both for lyrical and comedic purposes. There are fixed poetic forms in the lyrics too, and a wide variety at that: simple villanelle, silly limerick, serious rondeau, even a somber sestina.

The music took another eight months to complete. It is scored for four singers–two characters live in the real world, two in cyberspace–and an ensemble of nine instrumentalists. The main instruments are flute, oboe, clarinet, trombone, percussion, piano, violin, viola and cello; however, many instrumentalists are also asked to play on their doubling instruments such as alto flute, English horn or bass clarinet.

I began planning for this production a year ago, starting with a search for the singers who can take on these roles, and instrumentalists who might be interested in such a venture. By summer of 2011, our cast was set, and a successful online fundraising effort to generate $6,500 through Kickstarter gave us the official green light! (Below, a rehearsal.)

How would you describe your style of writing vocal and instrumental music? Tonal? Accessible? Mixed genre? Are there contemporary or modern composers whose style you admire and emulate?

Parody of familiar and popular musical forms and materials is among the top three devices used by composers in musical comedy through the ages, according to the late musicologist Dr. Enrique Alberto Arias from DePaul University in his annotated bibliography “Comedy in Music.”

In “Wired For Love,” this is certainly the case. You will  hear some raucous polkas and fancy Viennese waltzes; the texture of what could have been an aria from a Bach cantata wrapped in new harmony; the fancy color of Saint-Säens; the vocal writing style of Monteverdi; the soaring sound of Broadway; and five-part fugues. (To The Ear, some of the score sounds similar to parts of a Brecht-Weill opera such as “The Three-Penny Opera.” Check out the YouTUBE clip at the bottom.)

No genres, time period or styles are left behind. But while the soundscape on the surface may shift rapidly, certain musical material remains through the drama, tying all the musical numbers together.

What about the opera will most appeal to the average listener or audience member?

The story! It is both a cautionary tale about the threat of Internet fraud and a timeless parable of people who struggle to become who they truly are. The music is accessible–there’s something for everyone–and I hope there’ll be a tune or two that the audience may find themselves humming as they leave!

What else would you like to say or like readers to know about you and the opera?

This production is also a strong collaboration among all the participating musicians and artists. Besides the music from the hard-working singers and instrumentalists conducted by UW alum Ching-Chun Lai, the audience will enjoy the set and lighting designed by Madisonian Greg Silver, and costumes by Hyewon Park. Some of the costumes are also generously provided by Hilton Hollis (below), a New York-based fashion designer, whose works have been featured in Oprah Magazine, Jezebel and The Atlantan.

 

I also hope that “Wired For Love” will further raise the awareness of Internet and identity fraud. Despite what we may think, such fraud is an ongoing nuisance that creates financial damage and hurts people in a real way. Our daily and increasing usage of technology may make  the digital world seem safe–even friendly, fuzzy and cute.

Yet we must stay vigilant, just like we would when we cook a meal, drive a car or enter a new place, lest we bring so much misfortune to ourselves that could have otherwise be avoided.

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