An organic integration: The Wake World The Fairy Prince (Rihab Chaieb) and Lola (Maeve Höglund) in The Wake World, Opera Philadelphia, 2017. Photo: Dominic Mercier.

An organic integration: The Wake World

Erik Flaten

The Wake World by David Hertzberg, with a libretto drawn from Aleister Crowley’s story of the same name had its premiere last night at Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation. To use the composer’s own words, the production was “pretty wacky.”

The Giant (bass-baritone James Osby Gwathney, Jr.) enters the scene. The Wake World, Opera Philadelphia, 2017. Photo: Dominic M. Mercier.

An hour prior to downbeat, the audience is invited to explore the galleries of the Barnes Foundation, which is an effective way to begin the night’s journey on which The Wake World leads its audience. The thing that sets this opera apart from others of its kind (i.e. operas that are set in alternative venues) is that the work itself is inspired by its surroundings; the score is an extension of the artwork that is already in place. Plenty of groups have attempted to create “interactive” operas, but Wake World might be one of the first of its kind that isn’t just plain awkward. We owe thanks to the vision and direction of director R. B. Schlather for the success of this truly immersive program.

>The Fairy Prince (mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb) guides Lola (soprano Maeve Höglund) through his palace. The Wake World, Opera Philadelphia, 2017. Photo: Dominic M. Mercier.

The audience literally follows Lola (Maeve Höglund) as she embarks on a wild love story with The Fairy Prince (Rihab Chaieb). Soprano Maeve Höglund sings exquisitely and brings an infectious wonder to the role. Rihab Chaieb has a rapturous voice, full of lush colors.

Other fantastic characters, played by members of the Opera Chorus come in out of the journey, as well. The rich variety of singers shows off the individual abilities of the chorus members, in addition to the impressive group’s collective sound. Sixteen voices from the Opera Chorus make up The Palace of Names, and provide some of the greatest singing of the evening. They manage to sound as one unit even when they are spread all throughout the entire Annenberg Court. The Chorus shows mastery of incredibly difficult music (which often has no words), and manages to achieve mysterious and obscure sound effects with expansive and glorious forte moments.

Lola (soprano Maeve Höglund) amongst The Palace of Names. The Wake World, Opera Philadelphia, 2017. Photo: Dominic M. Mercier.

Hertzberg’s colorful score weaves together the story. The music ebbs and flows through all possible sonorities, and there are moments of impressionist-sounding music, which match the beauty of the pieces featured in the gallery. The instrumental parts sound ferociously difficult, and the players don’t just survive them, they play them with passionate musicality. It is an incredible feat that pianist Grant Loehnig is able to get an upright Yamaha to sound so beautiful.

Pestilitas (baritone John David Miles) guards the entrance to a garden. The Wake World, Opera Philadelphia, 2017. Photo: Dominic M. Mercier.

The true MVP of the night is maestra Elizabeth Braden. She leads with confidence, conducting what may possibly be the most difficult score of the O17 festival. Braden breathes remarkable expression into the nonstop score of ninety minutes. Beyond keeping the entire production flowing, she is also responsible for the chorus’ remarkable success.

Lola (soprano Maeve Höglund) awakens. The Wake World, Opera Philadelphia, 2017. Photo: Dominic M. Mercier.

Immediately following the performance, I could sense a collective feeling of “what just happened?” amongst my fellow audience members. We might not ever be sure, but we can say with certainty that it was beautiful and enchanting.

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