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The Magic of Tuning In

“Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”

                                          --- Henry David Thoreau

 By Richard Knox


OK, raise your hand if you’ve never had a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day. You know, a day when everything in your world – road traffic, coworkers, friends, your computer, even the chair you stub your toe on -- seem to mock and block you.


Yeah, that’s what I thought. “We’ve all experienced moments when we feel stuck, alone and lost, when our long paths lead to dead ends,” says Michael Stoddard, who staged the “choral opera” you’re about to experience.


Meet Nora, a depressed woman of a certain age, played in pantomime in these performances by the talented Lisa Lovett. In Part I of this unconventional “choral opera,” Nora battles her way home after a day at her meaningless job to the sanctuary of her lonely apartment. But there’s no escape. She gets sass from her lamp (“You forgot to get a light bulb, we need a light bulb”), her mirror (“Nora, I swear you look like hell on legs”), her chair, the clock.


And then there’s the thunderously silent Letter – a naked outpouring of unrequited love, returned to her unopened. (“What kind of jerk returns a handwritten letter unopened?” the chair and the mirror needlessly chime in.)


Nora turns to the radio for solace. Immediately it pumps out an upbeat swing tune about lucky lovers with “wicked, wonderful plans” for a night on the town. Sheesh!


Flipping through the radio dial, she hears reminder after taunting reminder of her bleak state – from a rap song…


                …Don’t you walk away, I got somethin’ to itch, yeah.

               Come on over, baby, you can be my…


to a Latin lament…


               …Nada mas. Nada mas.

              Nothing more, my love. Oh, my darling,

              Nada mas. Nothing left but this sorrow.

              Nothing’s right

              Since you left.


More and more the radio music seems to be about her. OK, that happens. It’s an uncanny feeling we’ve all had about random radio music. But when Nora hops to another station, even the commercial seems to be about her:


               …You have forgotten what it’s like to smile.

               Every little step feels like it takes a mile.

               You get up, sit down and start to cry.

               It’s time to try Stabilify!


Then suddenly, the radio speaks directly to her. It knows her name. It knows about the Letter. It understands her existential angst. “That’s a really weird radio,” observes the mirror. “I’m going mad!” Nora thinks. “Open the door, Nora!” the radio urges. “What door? What for?” she wonders. The radio replies…


              …Were you aware

              when your heart became estranged

              from all you hoped to share?

             Nora, who are you

             when you cease to care?


And so we’re launched into The Radio Hour, a decidedly original drama that takes us on a witty, playful, mystical journey to a redemptive destination. It’s a parable on the transformative power of music.


Part II, “Through the Door,” takes Nora (and us) into the radio. It’s an old-reliable meme we know from Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Wizard of Oz and the Harry Potter fantasies.


Composer Jake Heggie and his frequent collaborator, librettist Gene Scheer, envision this Radioland as a space (in Heggie’s words) “where sound tracks and sound waves are going on inside, around and through us all the time: It’s up to us to decide what to tune in and what to turn off.”


Inside Radioland Nora discovers her “dream melody” – a bouncy, big-band swing song that gets her dancing. But she’s not there to party. The all-knowing Radio sets her a 12-tone riddle.


Now here many of you (almost all, I imagine) need a clue about what’s going on. Nora’s challenge involves a musician’s inside joke based on the esoteric concept of 12-tone music. You don’t need to know too much about it, but here’s the basic idea: It’s a method of composition based on the 12 tones in an octave (think the white keys and black keys on a piano). Its early 20th-century originators invented an alternative to conventionally consonant harmonies and melodies of Western music. In their system all 12 tones are considered equal. It follows a rigid set of rules in which no tone is repeated in a single 12-tone “row.”


Twelve choristers line up before Nora, each one representing a different tone and a different word. Her charge is to order them into something that makes sense – sort of like those refrigerator magnets you can arrange into whatever funny, ribald or profound poetry you can think of.


“Twelve tones in a row. It’s all up to you,” the Radio says. “Nora, you hold the key.” (That in itself is a subtle joke: In 12-tone composition, there’s no conventional key signature.)


The overall message is that Nora can break free of her stultified life, take charge, escape from others’ expectations, make her own music, go where she pleases. Live without regret and self-blame, the Radio urges. The greatest sins are “I would have, I could have, I should have.”



Through trial and error, Nora shuffles the tones and words into a 12-tone “composition” that charts a brighter future. The 12 “tones” congratulate her with a dozen roses – “a bouquet of possibilities!”


As Part III, “A New Day,” opens, we’re back in Nora’s apartment, where she wakes as from a dream. But was it a dream? Nearby is an intriguing clue. (Wait for it.)


To show she’s gotten the message, Nora takes a step (again, wait and see) that shows she’s ready, as Heggie puts it, “to become joyful, youthful and energized again.”


Master Chorale music director Dan Perkins says he programmed “Radio Hour” for these performances “because it’s unlike anything we’ve done.”


But it’s also because he’s been a radiohead since his middle-school years in Colorado, when he developed an addiction to The Green Hornet superhero series. “I love the power of radio drama,” Perkins says. “Like a good book, it forces us to imagine images, places and faces that film and stage shows spell out for us – perhaps spoon-feed us.” The Heggie/Scheer idea of a silent actor backed by chorus remind him why silent films can be powerful.


This innovative form – a choral opera – is a departure from typical choral concerts where the choir stands on risers, faces forward and makes beautiful sounds, as Heggie puts it. It’s “a big step and an exciting one.”


Will he write more choral operas? Stay tuned. Heggie says choruses uniquely bring an element of community into music-making. “I love…the way it connects us and brings us together. I don’t think anything does that more magically than a choir.”



The second half of these concerts takes us into radio again, but in a nostalgic mode – back to its heyday 80 years ago. The 1940s Radio Hour was a full-fledged musical that played on Broadway in 1979-80.


Using pop songs from the era, the show took audiences into the ramshackle studio of WOV, a small Manhattan radio station taping a variety show for broadcast to GI’s serving overseas in World War II.


Perkins says the Master Chorale’s adaptation of the show “is really just an excuse to revisit some of the music from the 1940s which will be so familiar to our audiences.” In swing-style, close-harmony arrangements typical of the time, you’ll hear the golden oldies “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” “Ain’t She Sweet,” “Blue Moon,” “I’ll Never Smile Again,” “Blues in the Night,” “Strike Up the Band,” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.” And even a Pepsi commercial.


Richard Knox, a Master Chorale baritone, is the group’s program annotator. He lives in Sandwich.

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