Reflections on gender: Mark Morris stages one-act operas
Pictured: "Curlew River," staged by Mark Morris, with tenor Isaiah Bell, right, playing the grieving mother (Hilary Scott photo).
Reading reviews of Tanglewood’s two evenings of one-act operas, I recalled a chance meeting with Mark Morris in the aisle at Avery Fisher Hall, at the premiere of John Adams’s “The Gospel According to the Other Mary.” He looked at me quizzically, so I offered, “I usually ask you questions at Jacob’s Pillow, but not about dance. I’m the music lady.” The master choreographer didn’t miss a beat: “So am I,” he replied.
I chuckled until I realized how profound that is. His works with the Mark Morris Dance Group, linking the worlds of new dance and great music, transcend gender. Whether setting Tchaikovsky or Bach, he puts guys in skirts among the girls. In the 1989 dance to Purcell’s 17th-century opera, “Dido and Aeneas,” Morris danced the roles of both Dido and the Witch.
His status at Tanglewood is evolving. In recent years, his Jacob’s Pillow dance students have collaborated with Tanglewood Music Center Fellows in June; now he has been upgraded to the heart of the season. Last week there were two warmly received stagings of a double bill: his new “Curlew River,” choreographed to Benjamin Britten’s score, and the quarter-century-old “Dido.”
Tanglewood fellows played the music for both, but the pro Dance Group, in black costumes, danced “Dido,” and Tanglewood’s male fellows, in white slacks -– including the central female role -- assay the tai-chi-like choreography of the Britten. Morris took bows in his usual garb: barefoot, in jacket and sarong.
Britten, born a century ago, transposed the seldom-heard opera “Sumidagawa” from a medieval Japanese Noh play that, by custom, was acted by men. A film of it was shown the night before, in which the mother, a burly man with big hands and jowls, wore a female mask.
“Curlew” (that’s a bird, by the way) wasn’t fully staged, nor as slow and intense as the film, but it was nonetheless affecting, particularly for those who, like the grieving mother, have lost a child. A ferryman rows her, and a group of chanting monks with origami offerings, across the river to what turns out to be her kidnapped young son’s grave, where they witness a miracle of hearing his voice. The mother was sensitively sung by Isaiah Bell, a tall incongruously red-haired tenor with a deftly wielded parasol instead of a mask.
Compared to the mix of centuries in “Curlew,” “Dido” seemed relatively conservative, though it was true Morris. Title roles matched gender, as they did in singing roles, which with chamber orchestra, came from the rear balcony.
Later, as Morris walked across the wet lawn in flipflops, I waved and said, “I’m the music lady,” He replied, “We both are.”