Something big is about to happen in the Vermont arts world.
This September, after a performance break of 15 years — poet David Budbill and composer Erik Nielsen — are teaming up again with a full professional company that includes a music and stage director also a stage manager, tech director, costume designer, 16 opera singers and a seven-piece orchestra in an opera production of “A Fleeting Animal.”
“A Fleeting Animal” tells the story of what it’s like for ordinary people to live in hardscrabble, rural Vermont. But to the point. The opera fixes our attention on a young veteran who returns home to his small Vermont town after an 18-month tour of duty in Vietnam. He has been greatly changed — and is deeply troubled — by what he experienced. But he falls in love with a beleaguered single mother. The two find great happiness for a short time. And he struggles, but ultimately fails to escape his demons and dies by suicide. She becomes distraught and loses her grip on reality.
In a conversation with composer Erik Nielsen he talked with an unmistakable intensity about “A Fleeting Animal” — an opera and a work of art that would not let him go.
Nielsen said that his commitment to the opera “is coming from a deep and abiding attachment to the work — an attachment he felt most strongly during the nine months that he composed the music.
But mounting a second production of “A Fleeting Animal” – given the harsh realities of today’s opera world — has not been unlike pushing a huge stone uphill.
Getting an opera performed the first time was comparatively easy, he said. “People want to commission something.” That gets it performed once. But getting it performed a second time is nearly impossible. “If they can’t commission it, they don’t want to produce it” and this chokes off a second run of performances.
“A Fleeting Animal” was first performed in 2000. The years went by and over time Nielsen made his peace with the opera world as it is today and put his dream of a second production on hold.
Then something unexpected happened.
A couple of years ago, Nielsen was leading a music appreciation class and two women in the class asked him to talk about the opera. “I played some music. I talked about the story. People in the class that had seen the opera talked about it.”
And said Nielsen, “The response was so overwhelming, that I said: ‘It’s time.’”
It was time, he felt, to take on the formidable task of reaching out to volunteers, organizing a board, and seeking financial support to pay for a professional production and a second run of performances.
That Nielsen and his board (with the timely help of the Monteverdi Music School that has served as the project’s fiscal agent) have nearly met the $70,000 goal speaks to the opera itself and the spirited effort that is going forward in rehearsals to create a run of performances that will do justice to the transformative power of the work.
Talking about this second run of shows, Nielsen sounded like a man whose creative energies had been re-engaged. “I’m back at it,” he said. I did some revisions. I never lost my love for it.”
The story about the young veteran who returns home— changed and troubled —and who struggles with what he has experienced in Vietnam — Nielsen called this, “a story for our time.” And though Nielsen sees himself as a composer, not as a clinician, he’s deeply aware that a lot of veterans come home and feel that no-one understands what they have been through.
In the opera that composer Erik Nielsen and librettist David Budbill created, there is plenty of darkness. But there are also shafts of light.
Said Nielsen: “They’re funny. They fall in love. Like any of us, these rural people are dazzled by the beauty of the seasons. They roller skate, cut wood, play softball. In our short — 90-day-summers — they have cookouts, go skinny dipping, sit out under the stars.
Nielsen believes absolutely that opera can take storytelling — can take hearing and seeing and experiencing a story to a higher level of understanding — through music. “Let the music take you. Follow the story. Let the music take you along,” he said.
One local woman who saw the opera during its first run in 2000 described her reaction in words like this, “A Fleeting Animal had knocked her back because it was so powerful. But it astonished her as well because it was so funny.”
The power of the opera is derived from the searing honesty of David Budbill’s Judevine and from Nielsen’s often urgent, sometimes tender, music.
“This stuff is the bedrock of our time,” Nielsen said about the Vietnam veterans who returned home and couldn’t find understanding for what they had experienced.
Erik Nielsen is bringing back “A Fleeting Animal” for six performances over two weekends and in reaching out, he says: “We want this seen by as many people as possible. We think this is an important story told in a compelling way.”
A Fleeting Animal: Performance Schedule
Friday, September 11: Barre Opera House 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, September 12: Elley-Long Music Center, Colchester 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, September 13: Hardwick Town House 4 p.m.
Friday, September 18: Woodstock Town Hall Theater 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, September 19: Vergennes Opera House 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, September 20: Chandler Center for the Arts, Randolph 4 p.m.
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