May 23, 1996
Vol. 15, No. 18

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    Two Eaton operas opening downtown

    Three other faculty members involved in productions "A great opera needs a character that is more than human, a character not tied to the quotidian needs of existence," said John Eaton, composer and Professor in Music.

    Both of his new operas, Don Quixote and Golk, fit that description. The first has, of course, the famous fictional Spaniard who sees windmills as giants and a humble inn as a castle. The second has Golk, from the novel of the same name by Richard Stern, the Helen A. Regenstein Professor in English Language & Literature. Sydney Golk is the host of a television show that springs surprises on ordinary folks -- a "Candid Camera" with bite. Golk (1960), the first of Stern's 18 books to date, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

    "Both characters are larger than life," said Eaton. "They are haunted by a vision that would transform human experience."

    The short operas will be performed together at 7:30 p.m. nightly from Thursday, June 6, through Saturday, June 8, in the auditorium of the Harold Washington Library, 400 S. State St. The operas are conducted by Barbara Schubert, Senior Lecturer in Music and Director of Student Performing Programs, and directed by Nicholas Rudall, Associate Professor in Classical Languages & Literatures and Founding Director of Court Theatre. Eaton, Schubert, Rudall and Stern will discuss Golk at noon today, May 23, at the Chicago Humanities Institute in Regenstein Library. For more information, call 702-8274.

    Eaton said his opera company is a kind of "pocket opera." Instead of the elaborate sets, full orchestra and cast of hundreds one might expect to see, the Eaton Opera Company stages its shows with a handful of instrumentalists, a vocal quartet and creative lighting. The instrumentalists are on stage during the entire production -- and they wear costumes, sing, move and speak, in addition to playing.

    "In Golk there are professional singers, but in Don Quixote the orchestra does everything -- they transcend their normal playing techniques," said conductor Schubert. "For example, the violinist has to sing and play at the same time in different pitches. That's very difficult to do."

    Eaton's first opera of this type was the critically acclaimed Peer Gynt, based on the play by Ibsen and originally performed in 1993 by the New York New Music Ensemble. "I wanted the instrumentalists to take part in the action, not simply play for singers they never see," Eaton said.

    Rudall said that the challenges of directing Eaton's operas are very different from those of a stage play. "These operas are self-directed. That is, John Eaton already has a number of physical images in mind, which he has incorporated into the operas. Also, the instruments are props in Don Quixote -- they are a part of the characters. Thus, a clarinet becomes a lance or a sword; the flute is a whip. Golk is more austere. There will be very simple, stark lighting. Golk is very modern in feel, as modern as television, which it is about."

    Golk is about "a fellow, Golk, who invents a show called 'You're on Camera,' " said Stern, who also wrote the libretto. "He sets up artificial situations and surprises people -- 'Golks' them -- bringing out of them what they didn't know was in them -- anger, amazement, consternation. He interrupts, elevates, the placid quality of their lives. Despite what people like Norman Mailer said -- 'Golk is the first really good book about television' -- I think it's about creative power in general and those who feed off of and sometimes destroy it."

    Eaton, a 1990 MacArthur Fellow and the composer of 13 operas, has been called "the most interesting opera composer writing in America today" by critic Andrew Porter. His operas have been performed around the globe, in such places as Bolshoi Hall of the Moscow Conservatory and the San Francisco Opera.

    His Eaton Opera Company evolved out of his desire to create a new kind of opera company, one that could fit all its costumes, props and instrumentalists in the back of a van and travel to city after city, school after school. "If we needed or wanted more accompaniment than those instrumentalists could provide, then we would use a full range of electronic music," Eaton said. "I envision not only innovation but also a true democratization of opera."

    A pioneer in electronic music, Eaton is the co-inventor of the Eaton-Moog Multiple-Touch-Sensitive Keyboard, a synthesizer that is sensitive to the pressure and placement of the fingers and that has been called "the world's most sensitive musical instrument next to the human voice."

    Tickets for the performances of Don Quixote and Golk at the Harold Washington Library are $22, $11 for students, and are available by calling 663-1628 or 722-5463.

    -- Jennifer Vanasco