Issue 11: The Mediterranean Is An Immigrant In Oceanic Verses

By Bruce Russell

Described in the liner notes as “an operatic tableau” and “a meditation on fading civilizations,” Oceanic Verses takes a potentially weighty mix of multimedia collaboration, improvisation, folklore, field work musicology, traditional and newly composed music and blends it into a seamless, transporting experience. Composer Paola Prestini released the opera digitally and in a limited edition CD and DVD package on her own VIA label in September 2014. Like any music theatre, it is probably best taken in live, but there is much to enjoy for the casual audience at large.

At the heart of the project is Prestini’s exploration of her own musical heritage, highlighted with a residency in Lecce in 2007, at the heel of the Italian peninsula. Here, like a 21st-century Janáček or Bartók, she collected sound samples, folksongs and poetic texts reflecting the many histories, cultures and dialects for which the Salento region of Italy is a nexus: Sardinian, Genovese, Griko, Byzantine Greek, Ladino and Bourbon Spanish. Inevitably this material influenced her musical language and provided the sources for the opera. Unlike the above-mentioned European masters, Prestini does not shoehorn or recompose her sources into an overly refined classical style but strives to present them whole; not merely as artifacts but as living entities.

This is where her collaborative partners enter. The libretto by Donna Di Novelli provides a framework of archetypical characters for the folk material to emerge out of: The Scholar, The Sailor, The Peasant and The Soldier. The Chorus is evocatively described as “the Mediterranean and all that float upon it.” The Scholar undertakes a voyage that is both archaeological and magical, and although played by a black woman in this production, she is arguably somewhat a proxy for Prestini herself. It is an improvising role, reminding us that the act of composition is never final but continuous. The story is not driven by plot but eternal themes: love, war, tragic irony.

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