Charleston Chamber Opera hopes to impress with Debussy

Christian Elser, Hugo Vera and Patrice Tiedemann( as father, son and mother) in "L'Enfant Prodigue."

Nic Bell

Though Claude Debussy turned 150 last August, his work remains modern and audacious. A sort of precursor to 1980s noise musicians John Cage and Sonic Youth and Michael Gira, Debussy used discord to create a textured mania in his compositions. He was an early proponent of unresolved dissonances: think of them as purposeful “mistakes” that create an aural cliffhanger within the music; the ostensibly errant chords or harmonics are subsequently denied the anticipated relaxing chord, which would offer “closure,” lending the music an ethereal, fleeting feeling.

Debussy helped engender the French Impressionism movement, though he later rejected the label, much like Schoenberg decried “atonality” and Philip Glass disavowed “minimalism.” Impressionism, in the visual and aural arts, has a certain paradoxical permeability to it, an opacity when viewed from close. Its cloistered components may seem erroneous and jarring: approach a Monet painting and you’ll find a canvas mottled with pinks and greens and thick ridges of blue, but step back and the colors commingle, the pinks and greens blooming into water lilies resting atop a tranquil blue stream.

Impressionist music is the same — it isn’t clastic. The various individual parts of Debussy’s “La Mer” don’t do much on their own, but amalgamated, taken as a single entity, synapse and all, the composition comes to life. (When “La Mer” debuted in 1905, Debussy allowed the musical notes to call the music “Impressionism”, but three years later he said those who call it impressionism were “imbeciles.”)

While Debussy’s later works, like “La Mer,” were overtly influenced by the chromatic mania and airy textures of Wagner (though he kept his debt to Wagner buried in quietude) and very lucidly harboring impressionist tendencies (despite his protests), his early works require a bit more digging if you want to exhume the discord. In his late-19th century compositions, Debussy guised his propensity for dissonance with lush arrangements, enveloping the “noise” with hazy string textures.

Such is the case with “L’enfant prodigue,” a cantata (vocal composition with instrumental accompaniment) that premiered in 1884. The composition was not originally intended for the stage, but that’s exactly where the Charleston Chamber Opera (CCO) intends to perform it for Piccolo Spoleto on June 1st and 2nd.

The CCO is performing “L’enfant prodigue” at Gage Hall, a cozy little room with a gleaming hardwood floor and dark wood ceiling, which means the acoustics should ideally ping and reverberate. When complimented on his cavern-filling bellows, Hugo Vera, a Metropolitan Opera-contracted tenor who is singing in the CCO’s production, claimed, “It’s the wood, the floors and ceilings. They make me sound good.”

The minimalist, almost ascetic staging of Debussy’s emotionally grand composition will hopefully convey an earnest emotional resonance both universal and intimate, said Artistic Director Patrice Tiedemann: “Who hasn’t lusted after someone they can never have? Who hasn’t had a loved one drift away?”

Choreographer Marka Danielle (called “Ms. Marka” by the dancers), Music Director Lynn Kompass, and Stage Director Jenna Tamisiea discussed and arranged the aesthetics of the production via phone. None of the dancers (from the Charleston Dance Institute) had seen Gage Hall before Tuesday, their first rehearsal, less than one week before the show’s premiere, and none of them had ever met.

Ms. Marka said the dancers will learn fast.

“What struck us is how simple the story of the prodigal son really is,” Tamisiea said. “We want to be accessible, so families can enjoy the production. Because it’s really about family.”

The performance will be in French with English supertitles.

The CCO wants to render the impressionist opera affable; Debussy is considered by some to be a challenging composer. “Most people don’t know what an unresolved dissonant chord is,” said Tiedemann, joking “I don’t even really know what they are.” (She does know what they are.) “We just want to do stuff that’s cool. We need art. We can’t be a nation of iPods and DVDs.”

Greg Cwik is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.