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Creative Loafing: Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Agent" becomes a world premiere opera

posted Nov 26, 2013, 1:31 PM by Catherine Giel   [ updated Nov 27, 2013, 8:11 AM ]
March 12, 2013

Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel "The Secret Agent" has just about everything you'd ever want to put in an opera: intrigue, romance, violence, suspicion, guilt, murder, suicide. The list goes on, but let's just say it has all the bases covered.

Atlanta composed Curtis Bryant has, in fact, turned the 1907 novel about a group of anarchists plotting to blow up the Greenwich Observatory into a full-length opera, and the work will have its world premiere this weekend, March 15-17, at Oglethorpe's Conant Center for the Performing Arts in a production by Atlanta's Capitol City Opera. We caught up with tenor Timothy Miller, who plays the anarchist Alexander Ossipon, so he could act as our super-secret undercover informant and tell us all about the new work. 

For those of us who aren't familiar 
with the novel, what's the story of "The Secret Agent"?
It's an interesting story in that there are tons of different plotlines, as with any opera. It starts with a conspiracy to blow up the Observatory Tower. The main character, Verloc, played by baritone Wade Thomas, is charged with the task to blow 'UP the tower. There's this group of anarchists: There's Verloc; there's Yundt the munitions expert; there's the feminist Michaelis; and there's me, Alexander, who's a pamphlet writer. The villain Vladimir is Verloc's source at the embassy who he gets his orders from. We each have our own way of trying to create change. I'm trying to "culture the mob," while Yundt is all about going after those in power by blowing things up. Yundt supplies the bomb, and then Verloc comes up with the plan to have his brother-in-law, Stevie, an autistic teenager played by countertenor Chase Davidson, deliver the bomb to the clock tower. But Stevie trips over a tree root and blows himself up. So now, Verloc has blown up his brother-in-law, and he has to keep this from his wife Winnie, and he's being followed by a detective, Inspector Heat, trying to piece together what happened at the clock tower and who Verloc's contact is at the embassy.

How would you describe the music In the work?
We talk a lot in opera about things that we recognize, things that pop out to a listener, especially with composers like Wagner, who's very well-known for his leitmotifs, associating every character with a particular theme. In this piece, composer Curtis Bryant has done a wonderful job of associating characters with themes, and all 0f these themes come back during the opera. Verloc has his theme, the anarchists have their theme, Inspector Heat has a very distinct theme. That's one of the wonderful things about it: Once you hear that music, you know who's coming. The thematic material that's associated with each character is something really distinct and really wonderful. There are also pieces that are unexpected . There are things that people will start to recognize, and things people will leave the show humming. That's what you want. 

As an opera singer, you're used to singing the work of dead composers, so it must be quite a change working with a living composer who's right there to answer any questions you have.
This is actually my second time working with a livi'ng composer. I performed in a work called "The Life and Times of Malcolm X" by Anthony Davis on the West Coast a few years ago. Just like Curtis, he was very involved in the process. I played Street, the character who introduced Malcolm to the nightlife. I showed him the ropes and taught him the ways of the street. lfs the part of Malcolm's life where he transitioned into .. Detroit Red, .. as they called him. To have the chance to work with someone who's still alive and still composing, ifs invaluable. For instance, there's a scene in which I walk into Verloc's home and I see him on the couch. I say, "Blood! Oh my God, she's killed him!" But I don't think we're going to have a blood pack, it just seemed too messy. I came up with the idea: Why doesn't Winnie just leave the compass she's stabbed Verloc with on stage near the couch and I'll trip over it and pick it up? Curtis was like, "That's perfect!"

Any favorite moments from the new work? Do you have a favorite aria?
I enjoy my aria because it's the only romantic moment in the show. Nobody expects the anarchist to be secretly searching for love, which is essentially what I'm doing. 

You're a busy guy right now. You're preparing for the world premiere of "The Secret Agent" this weekend, amd then next weekend you'll be helping to provide the music for the world premiere of "Hippodrome" by Atlanta dance company gloATL at the Goat Farm. What exactly will you be doing in that show?
We're singing the music of Arvo Part, who's known for his sacred repertoire and for coming up with his own way of looking at music, called tintinnabulation. It comes from the Latin word for bell, and it's how he views the chords in music. He's a modern composer, but the almost chant-like style of composing takes you back to early church music. lt's very simple, yet it can be very expressive. The first show I did with Lauri [Lauri Stallings, gloATL founder and artistic director] was at 54 Columns last summer. It was exciting for us because we as singers don't often exercise that amount of creativity. What we do is scripted, but ifs fantastic to be able to work with someone who has that much creative liberty. To have the audience that close to you, right there involved in the show, it was something that I'm not used to at all, but it was very powerful for the audience and for us. lt's the same thing I teach my students. When we do it right, the audience feels what we feel, they feel those vibrations. To have them that close, to have them experiencing that with us, is certainly a treat.

Tenor Timothy Miller performs in the Capitol City Opera's world premiere production of Curtis
Bryant's "The Secret Agent" at the Conant Center for Performing Arts at Oglethorpe University,
March 15-17.