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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the June 11, 2003
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Passage Hosts `Shangri-La’
Music, we say, speaks to us. And we love words
for their musical cadence. Yusef Komunyakaa, whose poetry is enjoyed
for its ability to dissolve the barrier between words and music, has
moved irresistibly from the spoken word to the staging of words with
music. It is an activity, he says, that is as ancient as our earliest
Admired for his poetry’s vivid imagery and rhythmic, accessible
language, Komunyakaa won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1994 for the
collection "Neon Vernacular"; he joined Princeton University’s
faculty in creative writing in 1997. He has published 11 books of
poems; his most recent anthology, "Pleasure Dome: New and
Collected Poems," was published by Wesleyan in 2001.
This week Komunyakaa unveils his latest chamber opera,
"Shangri-La," a work in progress that is one of five opera
projects with which he is currently involved. "Shangri-La"
will have a single workshop performance at Passage Theater in
Trenton’s Mill Hill Playhouse on Saturday, June 14, at 8 p.m. A
collaboration by Komunyakaa and composer Susie Ibarra, the work will
be performed by nine opera soloists and seven musicians, conducted by
"I think poetry has always been associated with larger
presentations," says Komunyakaa, in an interview from his home in
Trenton. "For years I thought of the Australian aboriginal
`Corroboree’ as the first poetic visual presentation." The poet,
who has spent extended periods of time in Australia, refers to the
ancient Australian Aboriginal sacred ceremonies of singing and
dancing. "Language itself is music. And I have thought about my
poetry in that way," he says.
Komunyakaa call his "Shangri-La" a "a mythical place"
and "an illusion of a paradise." The name comes from an
imaginary land, high in the Himalayas that was depicted in a popular
1933 novel "Lost Horizon" by James Hilton. Frank Capra made
"Lost Horizon" into a movie, and the expression became a
fixture of post-World War II vernacular. The opera
"Shangri-La" is actually set in Bangkok, Thailand, and tells
the story of a San Francisco detective hired to investigate an
The plot line comes in part from reports from Thailand that the poet
read in the popular press. "I had read a story in Esquire magazine
where individuals from the West who would visit Bangkok and it was
difficult for them to extract themselves from that place and time
— some of them even committed suicide." He says a couple of
years passed before he began to incorporate the idea into a libretto.
"I am interested in how beauty and terror are in the same frame
— that you can place them side by side and that they create a
certain kind of tension," Komunyakaa has said.
Art works that fuse text and music have become a major part of
recent activities. Earlier this year, his jazz opera
based on the life and death of Charlie "Bird" Parker, had
its premiere at the Sydney Opera House in Australia, and was also
presented at the Melbourne Festival. Initially created for radio and
broadcast in 1999, the music for "Testimony" was written
by jazz saxophonist Sandy Evans.
"In 1995 Chris Williams director of ABC (the Australian
Company) wanted me to write a libretto on Charlie Parker’s life and
I agonized over it, because the idea of Parker is so experimental
and opera so structured," says Komunyakaa, in retrospect. "But
Sandy took my words and her music and shaped them into a piece that
I’m proud to be associated with."
One critic has called "Testimony" "a
milestone in Australian music," while another writes that
"Sandy Evans has produced a masterpiece of sound to wrap around
the words of Yusef Komunyakaa."
When it came time to tackle "Shangri-La," Komunyakaa says
he was further encouraged by the success of another newly-minted
opera. "I was a little braver because I had already written `Slip
Knot’ with T.J. Anderson. I had already got my hand into the mechanics
of opera," he says. "Slip Knot" had its premiere on April
26 in a workshop production at Northwestern University, directed by
Rhoda Levine. This opera interprets the true story of a young
Massachusetts slave who was executed in 1768 for the rape of a white
woman who never charged him with the crime.
Komunyakaa has just been commissioned by the Omaha Opera to do a
libretto based on the life of Chief Standing Bear with music by
Anthony Davis. He previously collaborated with Australian jazz singer
Pamela Knowles on the album "Thirteen Kinds of Desire." The
song cycle was performed by Knowles at Princeton University’s
Richardson Auditorium in February, 2001. He also recorded a CD in
1998, "Love Notes from the Madhouse," in which he reads his
poetry to accompaniments by John Tchicai and his jazz ensemble.
"I’m interested in how inventive opera librettos are, but I’m
trying to go in my own direction, and poetry has taught me a lot about
what the possibilities are," says Komunyakaa, who adds that he
continues to write individual poems.
Komunyakaa was born and raised in segregated Bogalusa, Louisiana,
and has said that the jazz and blues he heard as a child inform his
"The radio was like a shrine for me," he says. "I remember
people gathering around the radio. It was a tall floor model radio
and my instinct, when I was three years old, was to peer behind it.
I was fascinated.
"There was a ritual that drew me to the radio. I remember
especially when we listened to the Brooklyn Dodgers, we would also
listen to prize fights on the Gillette Hour, I think it was called
— I can’t believe I still remember that name," he says in a
tone of wonder.
The radio was also Komunyakaa’s musical lifeline to traditional jazz,
blues, and gospel. As a young man he came to love progressive jazz.
"In New Orleans in the 1970s, I went to clubs wherever I could
hear jazz, jazz as jazz sessions, where the musicians were there to
play because of their love for the music and their love for each
The story of "Shangri-La" is invented, but it was sparked
by a real experience. "That’s how literature works often, I
think," says Komunyakaa. "It’s the dovetailing of the imagined
with the experienced."
Aspects of the story came during a 1990 trip when Komunyakaa, a
Vietnam veteran, was returning to Vietnam with a group of other
veterans who were writers. "I spent only one night in
Bangkok," he recalls. "But they took me to a club in the hotel
called the Black and White Club, and there were three waitresses
there, dressed up in gowns, glittery stuff. After about half an hour
in there, all at once the three women appeared behind three
microphones and began to lip-synch the Supremes. I seemed to have
stepped back in time. It was such a strange experience, and it didn’t
leave my mind."
Komunyakaa says the collaboration with composer Susie Ibarra was a
"give and take" process that capitalized on their different
spheres of experience. "She was four years old when she started
to listen to and visiting opera house — that definitely wasn’t
my experience growing up," he says.
Susie Ibarra is a Filipina American composer and
based in New York City. Her music is avant-garde and experimental,
drawing on influences of jazz, improvisation, classical, and Southeast
Asian gong music. Her recordings include "SongBird Suite,"
"Flower after Flower," and "Black Narcissus." She
works as a soloist, a composer, as leader of her own trio and quartet,
and member of the Electric Kulintang Ensemble.
"My mother was avid opera fan," says Ibarra, who grew up in
Houston and started classical piano at age four. One of the family’s
five musical children, her father played piano for pleasure. The
took turns sharing their mother’s season tickets to the Houston Opera.
Ibarra sang in a choir and played organ in her church through junior
and senior high school.
"Opera was so fantastic, even as a young child, even though I
didn’t comprehend it, it was very memorable," she says.
was the first opera she saw. And recently, when she had a chance to
hear "Carmen" again at the Vienna Opera House, "It took
me back to when I was so little. I still get nostalgic," she says.
"Magic Flute," "Hansel and Gretel,"
and "La Traviata" are just a few of the titles she rattles
off as she thinks back to her earliest opera experiences.
Ibarra, who earned her music diploma in 1993 at the Mannes College
of Music in New York, added percussion to her music repertoire in
high school. "I had played so much classical music that I added
percussion and joined a punk band," she says. "I just loved
to play the drums."
She and Komunyakaa were introduced in 1999 at the Chicago Humanities
Festival and started to perform poetry and music together. It took
about a year for "Shangri-La" to come together.
"We developed a great chemistry of collaboration, it was
I felt," she says. "I asked a lot of questions about
the characters. I took my time with orchestrating — the
are infinite. The orchestra plays out a role sonically to develop
The Trenton workshop performance represents the first phase of
bringing music and libretto together, she says. The seven-piece music
ensemble is composed of a string quartet, flute, piano, contrabass,
and percussion —
an array of timpani, gongs, tabla, Thai hand drums, bells, drumset,
and cymbals, and small percussion. Ibarra’s husband, Roberto J.
will be the percussion player.
"In an age when people become more specialized and more
I see a lot of modern work that is both traditional and modern. This
project is great — everything fresh," she says with
— Nicole Plett
Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton, 609-392-0766. The chamber opera
by poet Yusef Komunyakaa and composer Susie Ibarra has its first
production. Nine opera soloists and seven musicians present the work
in progress, conducted by Tania Leon. $10. Saturday, June 14, 8
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