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Friday, September 1, 2017

Whitman, Across the Divide

Photo: Gretjen Helene
By Robert Jackson Wood

“Since I have sat where you sit and breathed the air you breathe, I know you will hear me,” sings the poet Walt Whitman at the beginning of Matthew Aucoin’s opera Crossing, at BAM from October 3 to 8. It is, in our time, an almost perversely optimistic sentiment. Yet in the context of Whitman’s exuberant oeuvre, it’s maybe fitting. Whitman was an idealist, whose ebullient verse betrayed a sprawling fantasy of human communion—of bodies and souls merged, of distances overcome—sanctioned by an erotic metaphysics of shared experience. “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” he wrote in “Song of Myself.”

Yet beyond the edges of poems, Whitman found, the world could be a crueler place, and perhaps nowhere more than the grisly setting of Aucoin’s opera: a makeshift Civil War hospital, where Whitman volunteered as a medic and spiritual healer of sorts during a prolonged crisis of confidence. It was there that Whitman, already a misunderstood poet with an even more misunderstood sexuality, would further confront his alienation, pitting his belief in the possibility of poetic intimacy against the profane prose of the dying, groaning themselves to sleep at night. What type of meaning could a believer in “the body electric” offer to such a scene?

These are some of the questions that Aucoin— who wrote the libretto and who is himself a prolific poet—imagined Whitman struggling with, at least. To give the story focus, Aucoin looked to Memoranda During the War, the diary Whitman kept during the time, and found an enigmatic point of departure: a brief yet suggestive reference to a soldier named John Wormley. “Large clear dark-brown eyes, very fine—didn’t know what to make of me,” Whitman wrote of Wormley, betraying a desire tempered by alienation. Aucoin had found his subplot. In the opera, Whitman—played by baritone Rod Gilfry (the loser, 2016 Next Wave)—is instantly smitten. “Such beauty, such life, such fire, a living soul in the middle of war,” he sings. Wormley, along with many of the other soldiers, proves to be a tough sell. “Do you really think your words will do us any good?” one of them asks. But Wormley, it turns out, is just as vulnerable and out of place as Whitman. During an evening of relaxed boundaries, the two find each other and share a bed. Human touch becomes refuge.

Photo: Gretjen Helene
Aucoin, all of 27, is something of a wunderkind. He is currently at work on his third opera, set to premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, where he also serves as the venue’s youngest-ever assistant conductor. He is also artist-in-residence at the LA Opera, a position that was created to take special advantage of his dual composing and conducting skills. 

But Aucoin the keen-eared poet is just as much on display in Crossing. In the orchestra, made of members from the Boston-based ensemble A Far Cry, flutes, piccolos, and high strings arpeggiate in post-minimalist shimmers to enliven the text in various ways. A muscular lyricism rivers underneath. Some of the most emotionally intense moments fall to a male chorus, made up of the hospital’s wounded soldiers, whose unison outcries come to embody the broken fraternity of men united by fear. Subtle choreography by Jill Johnson lends a visual breeze to the inertial scene. 

On Tom Pye’s set—a single-room cabin-cum sick-ward seemingly in the middle of nowhere—claustrophobia reigns. Occasional projections, gauzily cast on the wooden walls, evoke the night sky or a waving wheat field—hallucinations of free and peaceful times before the war, if not predictive of future peace. Director Diane Paulus amplifies it all with an atomized mise en scène. If the soldiers’ individual hospital beds represent their emotional isolation, then Whitman, ever moving between them, attempts to be the lifegiving tissue that binds. He is poetry incarnate, an elusive, animating spirit that does what it can to weave the profane into more than the sum of its parts. “Myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme.” 

In a particular moment of frustration, Whitman asks: “What do you do if you can’t heal a wound?” Surely not write a useless little poem, replies the artist’s guilty conscious. But if war suggests the failure of poetry—Leaves of Grass was nothing if not a paean to unity—then it also suggests the continued need for it. For Whitman in that trying moment, it needed only take the form of love.

Crossing comes to the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House October 3–8, and great tickets are still available.

Robert Jackson Wood is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.

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