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ClassicsOnline Home » WHEELER, S.: Construction of Boston (The)
The Boston Cecilia’s concert performance of Scott Wheeler’s one-act opera on 1st April, 2007, in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, was hailed with a Boston Globe headline: “CONSTRUCTION OF BOSTON is a love note to the city”. Drawing on a cast of brilliant, young, mostly Boston-based vocal artists, a chorus of established reputation in music old and new, and an outstanding orchestra comprised of first rank professional instrumentalists, Wheeler’s witty, first foray into the operatic genre got a brilliant reading under the baton of veteran conductor Donald Teeters: “Teeters led everything with remarkable sensitivity to both text and architecture” (Boston Phoenix).
Scott Wheeler (b.1952)
The Construction of Boston
The Construction of Boston, like many operas and other works of musical theater, has changed its form several times. It began life in 1962, when the poet Kenneth Koch (1925-2002) wrote the text, in three inspired days, as a performance piece for the artists Robert Rauschenberg, Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint-Phalle. This first version of The Construction of Boston received a single sold-out performance at the Maidman Theater on 42nd St. in New York.
My musical setting of the play had its première in January 1989, in a concert performance by the John Oliver Chorale. In January and February of 1990, the Charlestown Working Theater produced a staged version, in a much reduced version for eleven singers and two players, produced and directed by Ron Jenkins. For that production, I persuaded Kenneth to add some explanatory text: a Prologue, which begins with the lines “I am the Opera, here to explain myself. / Operas don't usually do this, but it seemed a good idea.”
In February 2002, Boston Conservatory produced the work for the first time with both full staging and orchestra – that is, as an opera, in a production directed by Patricia Weinmann. For this production, I restored most of the original overture and orchestrated the sung prologue – I consider this the final version of the piece, and that is the version heard in this live recorded performance by Boston Cecilia under conductor Donald Teeters.
The Construction of Boston has elements of comic opera, masque and dramatic cantata. Koch referred to it as “a postmodern baroque opera”. I dedicated the work to my teacher Virgil Thomson; it takes some of its aesthetic from Thomson's Gertrude Stein operas Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All. As in the Thomson- Stein works, aspects of nonsense and opacity of meaning are no obstacle to the most serious artistic intent. In Construction, there is also a political (or at least civic) message.
The music of The Construction of Boston is eclectic in the manner of many stage works. Certain bright triadic choral moments are virtually quotations from Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts. The entrance of Rauschenberg is announced with Handelian choral counterpoint; that of Tinguely with a reference to chant (marked “Veni Tinguely Spiritus” in the score). The choral responses frequently recall Gilbert and Sullivan. The orchestral music for the building of the city refers to Brecht and Weill’s imaginary city of Mahagonny. Smaller rôles are characterized by bits of marches, waltzes, or a hint of barbershop quartet. These varied references, inspired by the vivid language and imagery of Koch’s verse, culminate in a choral lullaby to the city whose tenderness, while perhaps unexpected, is not ironic.
The Construction of Boston was recorded live at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall on 1st April, 2007. This CD was produced by Adam Abeshouse. Partial funding was provided by an Emerson College Faculty Advancement Grant. A full list of funders is available at scottwheeler.org or www.bostoncecilia.org
The libretto may be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/669018.htm
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WHEELER, S.: Construction of Boston (The)