Our dear friend Cecil Elliott left us long before the Agincourt Project was (ill)conceived but his fingerprints are everywhere. One of his more memorable quotes — those who knew him have their own — is the title of this piece: a suggestion that what we may see as a substantially aural experience is anything but. I learned this lesson quite by accident.
Twin City composer Dominick Argento, who passed just over a year ago, is renowned for the several operas in his long list of compositions. A 1987 work “The Aspern Papers” is based on a Henry James novella written a hundred years before. Commissioned and premiered by the Dallas Opera, it was performed soon after at the Ordway in St Paul. I was there for the second performance in one of the very cheap seats in nose-bleed territory.
The plot centers on the supposed existence of American poet Jeffrey Aspern’s papers. They may be held by an old lover living in Venice. An American visits the old woman and beguiles her to reveal the papers’ existence. Desperate to have access, the narrator seduces the old woman’s niece toward that end.
There is an amazing scene at the opera’s conclusion with two revelations: the spinster-niece realizes she has been used and her aunt protects herself and Aspern’s memory by burning the papers. At an earlier point, however, when Aunt Juliana reminisces about her passionate relation with the poet fifty years earlier. And so in one and the same room where those events transpired, there is a quartet — the couple, young Juliana and Aspern, and the other pair, the aged Juliana and the writer. What is remarkable is the quartet they sing, two duets entwined with one another. On stage it is easily understood because the costumes are period appropriate, light pastels for the flashback characters and somber Victorian for the present day (1880s). Each pair has to negotiate the room oblivious of the other, no easy staging, yet their voices blend and complement. It was a stunning experience.
I hadn’t realized until the next day how true Cecil Elliott’s observation had been in this case. On the next day, Minnesota Public Radio did a simulcast, which I enjoyed at home, reliving the event of the night before. But when it came to that crucial, magical scene, it fell completely apart. Without the costumes and staging to explain its complexity, it became what I’d characterize as an aural swamp: nothing made sense without costume, set, staging AND music. Opera was, in fact, a lot better than it sounded.
Why am I harping on this here today? Because Agincourt, too, is a multi-sensory experience. Or at least it should be, optimally, and has been with the aid of the community’s Composer-not-in-Residence Daron Hagen and the contribution of authentic “Windmill” cookies from Marcie Baker, still warm from the oven (the cookies, not Marcie).