They weren’t meant to be performed together, or at least not staged like this.
But director Atom Egoyan nevertheless has coupled Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony with Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite in a new, theatrical work. The result is an unusual piece of theater called “You Are Mine Own,” which makes its world premiere at Spoleto Festival USA on Saturday at the Gaillard Center.
“I’ve had this in mind for almost 15 years,” said Egoyan, who is best known as a movie director. “This particular piece, the Lyric Symphony, was never meant to be theatrically staged. But I’ve always seen that there’s this incredible opportunity because of the tension and the drama in the piece.”
A dramatic narrative was missing when Zemlinsky weaved together poems from the Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore for his Lyric Symphony, Egoyan said. But the music conveyed strong feelings.
“The whole piece is based on the undulations of a love story,” Egoyan said. “This idea of the feeling of yearning, this feeling of excitement, which moves into this feeling of deep satisfaction when you’re within a love affair, to this feeling of being bereft when it seems to break apart.”
From this, Egoyan also saw a natural connection between Zemlinsky’s piece and Berg’s: When the Lyric Symphony made its 1924 premiere in Prague, Berg was in the audience.
“Berg was in awe of Zemlinsky,” Egoyan said, noting that Zemlinsky was Berg’s teacher at one point. “The thing that’s incredible is that when he composed his masterwork, the Lyric Suite, a few years after he attended this premiere, he quoted from the Lyric Symphony.”
To emphasize this link, Egoyan is using two versions of the Lyric Suite, the original quartet with six movements and the fully orchestrated three-movement work. In so doing, he can start small and grow into Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony.
“For those who don’t know his work, this is an incredible introduction,” Egoyan said of Zemlinsky. “It’s his masterpiece. Because of his opera experience, he has a very strong sense of what the internal tensions and drama are when harnessing text with music.”
The orchestra itself becomes what Egoyan called a “theatrical presence” onstage. Even while the quartet is playing, he said, “they’re going to have the full orchestra, all the members of the orchestra behind them, waiting, as kind of a latent force.”
Soprano Natalia Pavlova, a Spoleto Festival veteran who performed in “Eugene Onegin” last year, is part of the symphonic drama. She’s joined by baritone Alexander Dobson, making his Spoleto debut.
“I don’t really see this as an opera, even though we’ll be acting and there will be staging,” Dobson said. “There used to be a term called music theater. Not musical theater, but music theater, where you sort of take music and add theater to it.”
Egoyan will use projected images to enliven the stage. Cameron Davis, the projection designer for the show, said these projections can add an additional layer of understanding for the audience.
“We’ll offer either support or other ways of seeing,” Davis said. “Other ways of giving different types of access to the desires and to the emotions of the characters.”
Egoyan, a respected Canadian director known for movies such as “Ararat” and “The Sweet Hereafter,” staged the Spoleto Festival opera “Feng Yi Ting” in 2012. He said the production is an unusual enterprise best suited for an arts festival.
“It’s an experiment, but it’s almost begging to be interpreted this way,” Egoyan said. “Every time I listen to the music, I have to pinch myself that I get to be in that world. Spoleto is a unique opportunity for artists to do things like this, to take risks.”
J.R. Pierce is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.