We all know the story of Oedipus, the tragic Greek king who, without realizing it, murders his father and marries his mother. What led up to these events, and what happened once Oedipus discovered the awful truth have, for the past 2500 years, been the subject of plays, operas, films, and poems (there’s even a rap version). Soon, on March 12 at the Church of the Holy Trinity on the Upper East Side, Oedipus will appear to New York audiences in a different form, that of a choral work “somewhere between an oratorio and an opera.” The piece, entitled Oedipus the King, was commissioned by The Cecilia Chorus of New York and written by the twin composers Doug and Brad Balliett, commonly referred to as the Brothers Balliett.
“It’s an incredibly exciting story, a real psychological thriller, and we wanted to make it a cinematic experience for the audience,” says Doug. “We are pulling out all the stops here. There’s a narrator playing Oedipus (the Two-Time Tony ® Award-Winner Stephen Spinella); a children’s chorus (the Boston City Singers) playing the Children of Thebes; a septet of some of the best new music artists in New York City (the Deviant Septet); and then there’s the enormous and wonderful Cecilia Chorus of New York. In our version, the Chorus is not playing the role of the traditional Greek chorus, just supplying commentary to the action. They ARE the action - playing - or rather, singing - all the roles except Oedipus and the children of Thebes.”
For the libretto, the Brothers Balliett sourced an English translation of the Seneca version of the play. Seneca (4 BC - 65 AD) was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, and dramatist. He was also a tutor and later advisor to Emperor Nero. “We chose the Seneca play over the earlier Greek Sophocles version because the Seneca is the more visceral and immediate. This was during the time of Nero’s empire, the most degenerate period in Roman history. This was the time of the gladiators, when audiences wanted their entertainment violent and gory. Seneca obliged them with his version of ‘Oedipus.’
The various elements included in the Ballietts’ Oedipus the King were staples of the ancient theatrical experience: song, declaimed text, dialog, and musical accompaniment. The Brothers have chosen the instrumentation provided by the Deviant Septet, which they themselves co-founded in 2011, to heighten the drama through the music. “The brass underlines the military moments in the story, the strings the lyrical ones,” explains Brad. The wind instruments - especially the clarinet - provide spooky tension, and the exciting moments are punctuated by the percussion.”
“We are incredibly excited about this project,” says Doug. “It is a challenge for us to stage a Roman spectacle with a cast of hundreds in a modestly sized Episcopal church in New York City, but what a beautiful church it is! And composing a piece of nearly an hour’s length for a massive chorus like the Cecilia is an even bigger challenge. But we have accepted those challenges with pleasure and excited anticipation.”
BIOGRAPHY, BRAD BALLIETT
Brad Balliett ('Impressive' - New Yorker) is in high demand as a composer, bassoonist, teaching artist, and speaker. He is principal bassoon of the Princeton Symphony and an artistic director of the chamber music collective Decoda (Affiliate Ensemble of Carnegie Hall), with which he regularly leads and participates in creative projects in prisons, homeless shelters, and schools. He is also an active member of Deviant Septet, Signal, and Metropolis Ensemble, and has performed with the Houston Symphony, Metropolitan Opera Musicians, New York City Ballet, International Contemporary Ensemble, and Hartford Symphony Orchestra. As a composer, he has recently received commissions from Carnegie Hall, The Cecilia Chorus of New York, Metropolis Ensemble, Ensemble Echapée, and Cantori New York, and, as a bassoonist, he has commissioned over a dozen new works. He is on the faculty for The Juilliard School and hosts a weekly radio show on WQXR's Q2 Music, both with his twin brother, Doug Balliett. His festival appearances include Chelsea Music Festival (where he was a composer-in-residence in 2011), Marlboro, Tanglewood, Newport Jazz Festival, Festspiele Mecklenburg-Vorpommen, and Lucerne Festival. Mr. Balliett holds a bachelor's degree from Harvard University and a master's degree from Rice University.
BIOGRAPHY, DOUG BALLIETT
Doug Balliett is a composer, instrumentalist and poet based in New York City. The New York Times has described his poetry as “brilliant and witty” (Clytie and the Sun), his bass playing as “elegant” (Shawn Jaeger’s In Old Virginny), and his compositions as “vivid, emotive, with contemporary twists” (Actaeon). Popular new music blog I Care if You Listen has critiqued Mr. Balliett’s work as “weird in the best possible way” (A Gnostic Passion) and “light-hearted yet dark…it had the audience laughing one minute and in tears the next…” (Pyramus and Thisbe). With a constant stream of commissions, a weekly show on New York Public Radio, and nearly 200 performances per year, Mr. Balliett has been identified as an emerging voice for his generation.