Da Vinci Our Contemporary – The Legendary Renaissance Polymath Arrives Center Stage in Composer Jonathan Berger’s New Monodrama

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PREVIEW: of the world premiere of Leonardo, a new operatic monodrama about Leonardo da Vinci by composer Jonathan Berger at NYC’s 92nd Street Y; and

INTERVIEW: with composer/librettist Jonathan Berger.

Leonardo da Vinci

Che cos’è uno starnuto?” Leonardo da Vinci asks himself – and his audience – at the top of composer Jonathan Berger’s new one-man opera, Leonardo.

“What is a sneeze?”

It may seem a disarmingly piddling question from one of history’s most titanic intellectual figures – but that is precisely composer Jonathan Berger’s point.

“Leonardo’s greatest asset was his unabashed asking of simple questions,” Berger says, “and through those questions arriving at deep insights.” And, indeed, embarking from that mere, humble sneeze, the opera aims to track a dramatic arc defining nothing less than, in Berger’s words, “Leonardo’s search for the soul,” with many a novel and startling observation and insight along the way.

“At one point, he’s established that the soul is a physical place in the brain,” says Berger – a remarkably unorthodox, even iconoclastic view at the time, given a culture of inherited classical opinions that located the soul variously in the heart, the lungs, even the liver – everywhere except the cerebral cortex.

In another passage, da Vinci inquires as to the soul of the unborn, “Is it in the mother, or in the fetus?” – questions still much contended today.

Berger’s Leonardo will receive its world premiere this weekend at New York City’s 92nd Street Y, as part of that noted cultural institution’s “Inflection” Series. An 8 p.m. performance on April 6, in 92Y’s Kaufmann Concert Hall will be followed on Sunday with a daylong symposium in the Weill Art Gallery entitled “The Soul of Leonardo da Vinci,” all of it honoring this year’s quincentenary of da Vinci’s death.

500 Years of Precocity

In conversation with Jonathan Berger, it’s impossible to mistake the composer’s authentic affection and admiration for da Vinci, engendered in his youth by coming across the Renaissance genius’s visionary sketches of the first known prototype for what we now call the parachute (a design only recently executed – and proven viable – in the year 2000).

But, while acknowledging Leonardo’s veritable cult-figure status (not least as a kind of kitsch high priest of recondite conspiracies in feverish pop-culture films and novels), “what I really wanted to do was demystify him,” says Berger. “Not in any way that’s cheap or gossipy, but simply to look at this person who was not embarrassed to ask any question.”

Thus, assembling the libretto from among the rich array of material in da Vinci’s own copious notebooks, Berger has striven to evoke a full-bodied picture of his protagonist’s indefatigable curiosity, as well as a muscular naiveté that powered his probes into the myriad mysteries below the the mundane – two qualities which, for Berger, are better honored in active emulation than passive awe.

Composer Jonathan Berger

“I’m not as free as he is,” Berger demurs (while, tellingly, speaking of da Vinci in the present tense).  “And I’m certainly not as brilliant.  But, for me, I think it’s really about taking nothing for granted.”

So Many Questions

“I’m a latecomer to music,” Berger remarks. “I learned to read music when I was in my 20s. I started college a confused person. I took a course in art history, and I took a course in philosophy. I took a course in aesthetics which had a huge impact on me, then I dropped out of college in my freshman year and pursued music.”

That pursuit saw Berger through subsequent undergraduate studies at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, a masters degree from the California Institute of the Arts, and a doctorate earned at Stanford.

Since then, and despite what he considers a late bloom, Berger’s own special charism of curiosity has become manifest in a career of arguably Renaissance amplitude, combining prolific composition work with interdisciplinary forays into applied aesthetic and scientific research. His concert hall output ranges from full-scale orchestral pieces to numerous string quartets, while his two previous chamber operas – Visitations (comprising two discrete pieces, “Theotokia” and “The War Reporter”) and the harrowing monodrama My Lai, have been highly praised.

Moreover, and rather farther afield from the typical work of other current serious-music composers, Berger has received a grant from an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense for “Ocean Memory,” a project involving a process called “sonification.”

“We’re using biological, physiological and geological data and trying to represent it in sound,” Berger explains, “so we can hear processes, and think about the ocean in different ways.”

Breaking the Code – da Vinci Style

Additionally, at California’s Stanford University, Berger has established “MERI” – the Music Engagement Research Initiative – which applies cognitive research to a deeper understanding of the phenomenology of music-listening.

Da Vinci’s famed “Vitruvian Man” illustration

“I am not a scientist,” Berger asseverates. “I’m a composer who collaborates with really wonderful scientists, and a group of terrific graduate students. And we’re asking simple questions” – a striking if unintended echo of Berger’s remarks about da Vinci’s own modus operandi.

“Nothing is obvious to me. Everything’s a big mystery. What makes people tap their feet? What’s the balance between attention and arousal?” And from such tremulously provocative queries, Berger and his colleagues have advanced to tasks like analyzing the relationship between musical expectation and surprise, and crafting new vocabularies for musical timbre.

One feels certain that da Vinci would be pitching right in.

Music for the Vitruvian Man

Asked to describe the style of Leonardo’s musical texture, Berger lays out the variety of gestures and compositional approaches that inform the score.

“I’m unabashedly expressive,” Berger says, “in a world where that’s not always a popular thing to do these days. I think of my music as lyrical. There’s always a thread of tonality in my music, though many people don’t hear it. And I milk surprise for everything it’s worth.”

And, while his overarching dramatic strategy is to make da Vinci an accessible spiritual contemporary to present-day audiences, does Berger nod to period-specific musical styles as well?

“There are hints of quasi-Renaissance music at certain moments,” Berger confides. “I did spend time studying the secular scores of [Franchinus] Gaffurius, who was a friend of Leonardo’s and was in Milan at the same time.”

“The Last Supper,” by da Vinci (Milan, Italy)

The reference to Milan is significant. While the opera ranges freely over the chronology of da Vinci’s intellectual (and spiritual) life, “at the end of the opera, I try to imagine that Leonardo is near the end of his stay in Milan,” Berger says.

“It’s a really interesting time of his life. Simultaneously with working on [the famed fresco of] ‘The Last Supper,’ he’s also in charge of planning parties for the ducal family of Milan.” It seems a wonderful accident of meta-operatic allusion – shades of da Vinci as a bustling and rancorless Rigoletto!

“I have this image of him as a party planner, while he’s writing, and painting this dramatic religious ‘party scene’ of the Last Supper at the same time,” Berger narrates. “Then, there’s a moment I call ‘Hesitation’ – one line where Leonardo remarks that ‘tears come from the heart and not from the brain.'”

Does that mean it’s possible that da Vinci – the sunny and dauntless descrier of Creation’s secrets, the progenitor of that indelibly triumphalist image of Vitruvian Man as Universal Microcosm – may actually have succumbed to moments of doubt, anxiety, or mortal dread?

Perhaps we can dare consider him our contemporary, and fellow traveler, after all.

One Night Only

Jonathan Berger’s monodrama, Leonardo, will feature acclaimed Canadian (and Metropolitan Opera) baritone Tyler Duncan in the title role. A chamber orchestra featuring the Canada-based St. Lawrence String Quartet (for whom Berger has previously written six instrumental pieces) will be conducted by Paul Haas. The production’s design is by Gabriel Calatrava, and its director is Kevin Newbury.

More information about, and tickets for, the April 6 performance of Jonathan Berger’s Leonardo at New York City’s 92nd Street Y maybe obtained here; while information about the April 7 symposium “The Soul of Leonardo da Vinci” is available here.

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About Author

Charles Geyer is a director, producer, composer, playwright, actor, singer, and freelance writer based in New York City. He directed the Evelyn La Quaif Norma for Verismo Opera Association of New Jersey, and the New York premiere of Ray Bradbury’s opera adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. His cabaret musical on the life of silent screen siren Louise Brooks played to acclaim in L.A. He has appeared on Broadway, off-Broadway and regionally. He is an alum of the Commercial Theatre Institute and was on the board of the American National Theatre. He is a graduate of Yale University and attended Harvard's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. He can be contacted here.

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