The 2011 Dallas Opera Gala featured not just a prominent singer but a creator of music as well. Joining baritone Nathan Gunn was composer and pianist Jake Heggie, who accompanied Gunn in the premiere of Heggie’s song cycle A Question of Light.
Both men were known factors. Gunn has been impressive in past Dallas Opera staged performances, and in 2010 Heggie’s Moby-Dick became a significant entry in the Dallas Opera’s list of world premieres.
Also present Friday night in the Winspear Opera House was librettist Gene Scheer, Heggie’s collaborator on both Moby-Dick and the new cycle.
Judging by the audience reaction, Heggie caught both the audience’s interest and approval. The hall was remarkably quiet during the performance — a pretty good sign that people are there not just out of a sense of duty — and applause was significant.
The idea of a cycle of music inspired by visual art is not new — think of Pictures at an Exhibition — but Heggie’s and Scheer’s A Question of Light is probably unique in being inspired by works located specifically in the Dallas Museum of Art. The cycle is dedicated to Dallas philanthropist Margaret McDermott, who is responsible for the acquisition of some of the pieces receiving the poetic and musical tribute. She was present Friday night.
The cycle consists of six songs, each of which is a reaction by Scheer and Heggie to a painting. Artists represented are René Magritte, an unknown ancient Mayan, Gustave Caillebotte, Piet Mondrian, Rufino Tamayo and Gerald Murphy. A small reproduction of each work was included in the printed program.
Unfortunately, the audience wasn’t furnished with the text of Scheer’s poetry, so connection of words to music and art was only intermittently apparent.
Heggie’s music was consistently pleasant, at times forceful, at times lyrical, at times witty with perhaps melancholy undertones (“Watch,” the final song, got laughs, but it seemed to me that the inexorable march of time cast a pall). The vocal styles ranged from spare to melismatic.
At any rate, it seemed repeated hearings would be rewarded.
After the cycle, Gunn, joined now by his wife, pianist Julie Jordan Gunn, sang a pleasant series of popular songs ranging from old favorites such as “Don’t Fence Me In” to music from Camelot.