We all have favorite authors, but when Da Camera of Houston's pianist and artistic director, Sarah Rothenberg, realized she had created an actual “Proust tower” in her home, with volumes in multiple languages, she knew she had to find a way to take that stack of books by and about French author Marcel Proust and breathe new life into his magnum seven-volume opus, In Search of Lost Time.
In the past, she has incorporated into her compositions themes from authors, including James Joyce and Proust, but never with the level of detail that audiences will see in the upcoming world premiere of A Proust Sonata: 7 tableaux en musique.
Those familiar with Rothenberg's works know that she sees the threads that tie together music, literature and visual arts, highlighting those connections in her original productions. In recent years she has “moved to multimedia, video and staging, distilling those experiences into performance,” in a three-dimensional merging of literature, music and painting “as a way of life.”
To create A Proust Sonata, she began with a personal journal containing scraps of text, music, ideas and sketches. She marked pages from books that contained photographs of fashionable men and women in the Belle Époque salons of the early 20th century. She copied pages from Proust's masterpiece, created in his final years as a recluse, focusing on the author's brilliant insights into the connection between memory, the passage of time and “the things that set off memory.” She drew from the writings of his housekeeper and confidante, Céleste Albaret.
Rothenberg took her research even further. Every time “Proust refers to musical works, refers to paintings” in his books, she says, she listened to that piece of music or looked up the referenced painting. Those period photographs and paintings, including Johannes Vermeer's View of Delft, made their way into her notes and eventually into her final script for A Proust Sonata.
Sounds were added, including the ringing of a church bell, a bell announcing a visitor, the sounds of the ocean (Proust spent his summers on the Normandy coast), the scratching of a pen, labored breathing (he suffered from asthma) and conversation, as if inside a French salon.
Part theater, part visual art, part music, Rothenberg has woven all of these elements together – along with works by Fauré, Schumann, Debussy, Chopin, Ravel and Beethoven, with added songs by Reynaldo Hahn and Leon Delafosse – and the piece was polished even further during workshops at New York's 3-Legged Dog and The Fisher Center at Bard College. "[The resulting work is] three-dimensional chamber music," says Rothenberg. "Akin to the four parts of a string quartet."
To design the production, she hired Tony Award-winning lighting designer Jennifer Tipton (The Cherry Orchard), Tony Award-winning set and costume designer Marina Draghici (Fela!), and Obie Award-winning video and projection designer Hannah Wasileski (The World Is Round).
Early versions of Draghici's set incorporated “things that could look like pages as well as walls, panels, a clock; one floor is movable,” says Rothenberg. “The set is abstract.” They experimented with different materials for the scrims, finding just the right aesthetic balance between opacity and translucence.
During the upcoming production, images from her scrapbooks and photographs will be projected onto the scrims in a second-by-second, perfectly timed choreography between the music, the script and the images. Obie Award-winning actor Henry Stram will portray the Narrator, speaking excerpts from Proust's prose, while Nancy Hume portrays Céleste/Françoise.
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Accompanying Rothenberg on the piano are tenor Nicholas Phan and violinist Boson Mo, along with a string quartet (Jackson Guillen, Jae-Won Bang, Jill Valentine and Sonya Matoussova).
“One of the biggest stories” in Proust's book is the realization by the main character that “he is never going to write anything,” says Rothenberg. “The Narrator realizes in the seventh book, he knows what he has to do. He has to write volume one.”
Rothenberg has taken the world of Proust, lifted from the fashionable era of the Belle Époque, and has circled around to invite us back into those beautiful salons of the Gilded Age.
8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, February 11 and 12, Wortham Theater Center, 713-524-5050, dacamera.com. $30 to $65.