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Investigations: John Eaton

image: Research headerAs a young boy, music professor John Eaton attended a performance of La Bohème. Seated in the front row, he was mesmerized as Mimi lay dying at the opera’s climax. But when he glanced down into the orchestra pit, he saw that the piccolo player and the oboist were sound asleep. Their slumber struck a profoundly discordant note with Eaton, one he still recalls with amazement today.

image:  John Eaton and Ulises SolanoThe premiere of Eaton’s latest opera, Travelling with Gulliver, provided a sharp contrast to that scene of dozing musicians. In Gulliver, the instrumentalists prance, dance, and sing across the stage, integral to the drama’s plot. Eaton, one of the world’s foremost composers, served as president, producer, and business manager for the performances of Gulliver and another of his recent creations, Antigone, at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago this past December. The one-act dramas--the 15th and 16th operas composed by Eaton--were staged by his own Chicago-based Pocket Opera Company, a group with a mission to bring new music and opera to the masses.

“I believe that if new music is put together with drama, it communicates much more readily and the audiences get caught up in the performance,” says Eaton, who has received a MacArthur “genius” grant, two Guggenheim fellowships, and three Prix de Rome grants for his work in new music composition and performance. “Sometimes new music concerts can be very cold and lifeless. We want very much to democratize opera. We want to reach audiences throughout the city--in schools, retirement homes, cultural centers, and underprivileged neighborhoods.”

The Pocket Opera was first formed by Eaton in 1992, but closed after only a few performances. Originally sponsored by the University of Chicago and Performing Arts Chicago, the company was recently incorporated as an independent not-for-profit organization and now looks to outside funding and individual donors for support. Eaton aims to perform two operas each year--one of his own and one commissioned by an outside composer.

Gulliver takes a whimsical look at the lesser-known third and fourth books of Jonathan Swift’s epic. The piece features a libretto written by Eaton’s daughter, Estela Eaton. Antigone is set to a libretto by Eaton’s longtime collaborator, Nicholas Rudall, a U of C associate professor in classical languages & literatures and former director of the Court Theatre. Rudall and University Theater director Curt Columbus staged the two works, featuring sets designed by world-renowned sculptor Dimitri Hadzi. Cliff Colnot, resident conductor of the University’s Contemporary Chamber Players, conducted both operas. While instrumentalists dominate the action in Gulliver, the singers take the spotlight in Antigone, which features vocalism in the grand operatic tradition.

Both pieces, especially Gulliver, rely on microtonal nuances to convey surrealism. Microtones are created through the use of sounds not found on the white and black keys of a piano. Eaton coached his singers in the off-pitch notes by working with them on two pianos that were tuned a quarter of a tone apart. Incorporating surrealism frees the composer to take more chances, Eaton says, with other elements of the opera, such as singing instrumentalists.

“When the setting has surreal elements, the audience is more apt to accept people singing who don’t sound like Caruso,” he says. “That is particularly true with the works that are primarily written for instrumentalists. It really does seem to work because the audience gets involved in the story and doesn’t care that, say, the flutist doesn’t sound like opera star Joan Sutherland, or that the instrumentalists are not professionally trained actors.”

Eaton expects to rely heavily again on his band of merry instrumentalists in the Pocket Opera’s next commissioned work: a science fiction–like libretto based on the development of DNA and the unscrambling of the genetic code.--Molly Tschida

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