Clara Schumann, long overlooked, takes center stage

`Clara,' the opera, debuts tomorrow at College Park

Stage: theater, music, dance

April 29, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

She was a child prodigy whose piano-playing earned her the enthusiastic praise of no less than Mendelssohn, Chopin and Liszt, and she continued to give concerts into her 70s. She composed a remarkably assured piano concerto at age 15 and wrote several other substantial pieces over the years.

She fought long and hard with her father over her right to marry the man she adored. Her husband died insane and so did one of her sons. But she never lost her bearings, her spirit or her talent as she earned her place among the 19th century's most respected musical figures.

She was Clara Schumann, and she's about to return to the stage - in the form of an opera.

Today, Clara is known primarily as the wife of one great German composer, Robert Schumann, and the close friend (perhaps more than friend) of another, Johannes Brahms. Her own music is infrequently played, her reputation as one of history's great keyboard artists recalled mostly by scholars. But her life has always been ripe for dramatization. Katharine Hepburn portrayed her in a reasonably effective 1947 movie, Song of Love. An operatic treatment seems almost inevitable.

Clara, with music by Robert Convery and libretto by Kathleen Cahill, bows tomorrow night at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Center in College Park. It was co-commissioned by the center and the UM School of Music's Maryland Opera Studio. (The new work will run concurrently with the Studio's production of Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann.)

The initial inspiration for Clara came from the librettist. "Ten years ago, I happened to read an article about how Clara's father [Friedrich Wieck] wrote in her diary in the first person," Cahill says. Those entries, dating from the years when young Clara was concertizing, contained such lines as "My father is a genius" and "I owe it all to him," penned by Wieck as if they were hers.

"Other peculiar pieces of information about Clara Schumann floated my way over the years," Cahill says, "and started making me think about her as a subject for an opera."

Leon Major, artistic director of the Maryland Opera Studio and stage director for Clara, encouraged Cahill and suggested Convery as composer.

Convery and Cahill were determined to avoid what the composer calls "the operatic equivalent of a biopic," eschewing "dry historical stuff" in favor of a stage work that concentrates on the essence of an extraordinary woman who survived enormous stress. The story, told in flashback, "comes through as one big song from beginning to end," says Convery.

There are five scenes, separated by musical interludes that reflect on the preceding scene or anticipate what's in store in the next. The 90-minute opera will be performed without intermission.

"Everything is taking place in the last second of Clara's life," Cahill says, "in the way that a second can last an eternity. When we get to the fifth scene, she's 14 and about to perform the biggest concert of her life. You come to that point having seen what happened to her, all that emotional torment she went through. There is a transformation as you witness events that could have destroyed Clara. She is not reliving all of this so much as dispelling it, purging herself of conflict in the last moments of existence."

Two mezzo-sopranos will portray the title character, one as the Clara we meet on her deathbed in the first scene, the other as the younger Clara.

Convery weaves into his score music by Clara and Robert Schumann, as well as Brahms. "I am not concerned with my own musical personality meshing with theirs," Convery says. "I wasn't worried about being compared. The musical quotations are used to generate things, to help make the drama happen."

The bulk of the opera, of course, is driven by Convery's music, not 19th-century echoes. "Those snippets have helped pull together my own music," he says. As for the style of his score for Clara, he says that "even though it gets complicated, it sounds simple." His goal was "distilled lyricism."

While the opera attempts to bring a remarkable woman into focus, it does not try to settle the question of just how close Clara got to Brahms, especially after Robert Schumann's confinement to an asylum and subsequent death. "They certainly had a very deep love for each other," Cahill says. "Did they or didn't they?" says Convery. "We left that ambiguous."

For more classical music, theater and dance events, see Page 36.


Where: Clarice Smith Center, University of Maryland, University Boulevard and Stadium Drive, College Park.

When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, 3 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. May 6 and 8

Tickets: $20; $5 for students

Call: 301-405-2787 or visit www.claricesmithcenter

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