Shadow Song: A Radio Opera Extravaganza

Plus: Concerts in NYC and LA

Shadow Song: A Radio Opera Extravaganza

Plus: Concerts in NYC and LA

I'm a big radio opera nerd and last week I was given the perfect platform to express my love for the genre – an hour-long radio opera celebration on the Los Angeles-based internet radio station dublab, which you can listen to on-demand here. The broadcast weaves together research with excerpted radio operas/arias from yours truly, Martinu, Grażyna Bacewicz, Yvette Janine Jackson, Jason Cady, and John Cage. For those who would like to read along, I've included a transcript of the hour below!

Before we dive in, I have two big concerts to plug. If you're in NYC or LA, I'd love to see you there! I'm wearing my bicoastal bucket hat this week and will be present at both:

April 24 NYC
S.E.M. Ensemble 2024: The Year of Czech Music in Reverse
Bohemian National Hall (321 E 73rd St), 7 PM, free

This concert is a contribution by the historic S.E.M. Ensemble to the “Year or Czech Music.” Featuring music by Czech and American composers, it demonstrates the influences and incentives that cross boundaries between countries and nations. A rare opportunity to hear this repertoire, with Petr Kotik conducting full orchestra for the Niblock and Wolff. Wolff (b. 1934) will be in attendance, as will Petr Bakla – who flew in from the Czech Republic for the occasion.

Anna Heflin: The man who owned the forrest* also owned the racetrack (For five instruments) (*yes, this spelling is intentional)               

Rudolf Komorous: Tango (For large ensemble)

Phill Niblock: Disseminate (For orchestra)

Petr Bakla: String trio no. 2 (For violin, viola and cello)

Christian Wolff: Small Orchestra Piece (For orchestra)         

Petr Kotik: Ariane (For violoncello and piano)

April 27 Los Angeles
SAGE LAB x dublab x USC Thornton: Sonic Activation 3
dublab (1035 W 24th St, Los Angeles), 7 PM, free
curated by Prof. Camae Ayewa (aka Moor Mother)

The third sonic activation of SAGE! I'll be sharing excerpts from my upcoming opera for vocalising cellist + looper the INcomplete cosmicomics for Aaron Wolff. The full work will be produced in spring 2025 in NYC, details TBA! Come out and hear excerpts along with sets from Kai Kubota-Enright & Lindsay Martin and V.C.R. (plus special guests!)

Radio Opera Extravaganza!


This next hour is a radio opera extravaganza! A radio show about radio opera with live opera featuring the radio! My name is Anna Heflin and I’m a Los-Angeles based composer, writer, and researcher. I’m a Doctoral music composition student at USC Thornton and my broadcast today is part of the SAGE USC THORNTON RADIO series at dublab organized by my USC Professor Camae Ayewa, aka Moor Mother. Speaking of SAGE, we’re having a concert next Saturday April 27 at Dublab at 7 PM (tickets are free) featuring music by me and my colleagues. Spoiler alert, there will be some opera excerpts for vocalising cellist Aaron Wolff and looper from me! 

But back to our radio opera extravaganza, you’re going to get a three for one today: a live radio opera aria, recorded historical and contemporary radio opera excerpts, and a bit of history surrounding the radio opera genre in the context of the selected excerpts. For the live portion, I’ll be premiering my new aria for soprano Andrea Church and KOMA Elektronik Field Kit, titled “Shadow Song.” Andrea is here in the studio with me, want to say hi Andrea? Collaging material from celebrated operatic arias by Meyerbeer and Verdi, “Shadow Song” reframes the typical operatic feminine narrative from bereft sorrow to a fantastical, and somewhat strange, inner quest.

I sample specific moments from Meyerbeer’s iconic “Shadow Song,” in which the protagonist Dinorah is unhinged and alone in the forest speaking to her shadow. In my reimagination, Dinorah’s insistent response requests are met using the transformative field kit and excerpted moments from Verdi’s Violetta’s “Amami, Alfredo” from La traviata. It is up to the listener to decide exactly what the conversation between Dinorah and the shadow/Violetta figure is and I welcome all interpretations – lately I’ve thought of it as a breach of time-space in which opera's leading ladies tune into the frequencies of one another. Without further ado, please energetically welcome Soprano Andrea Church. We will be performing this together, with her singing and me performing the electronic role of the shadow. This is “Shadow Song.”

in-studio performance of "Shadow Song"

Early Radio Opera

Thank you for listening, that was my “Shadow Song” for soprano Andrea Church and I’m Anna Heflin. I wrote that with radio in mind as one poignant way to experience it and I’m planning on exploring a staged version in the future. It’s subtle, but if you could hear it, the piece of tech I was using, the KOMA Elektronik Field Kit, has a radio transmitter embedded which I gently incorporated towards the end. I couldn’t help myself, using radio in a radio aria on a show about radio opera was just too enticing. I’ve thrown around the terms “radio opera” and “radio aria” quite a few times now and you may be asking what exactly a radio opera is. The genre is vintage chic – it flourished briefly in the 1950s and 1960s and is having a comeback moment. It was born in the most fascinating way – when radio came into popular culture they simply didn’t have the airtime to broadcast the operas in their entirety. The radio opera was born out of necessity, transmuted into its own form and just as swiftly dissipated.

But back to the start, American opera radio broadcasts began in 1925. Insight into that start can be gleaned from conductor Cesare Sedaro, who is quoted in Jim McPherson’s 2000 Opera Quarterly article Before the Met: The Pioneer Days of Radio Opera Part 2, The NBC National Grand Opera Company. So, according to the primary source Sedaro, “There are more difficulties and problems than the average listener probably realizes in cutting an opera to an hour's length. . . . The popular arias must be retained, for you know the protest that would arise from listeners if these were killed. The gap must be bridged perfectly without adding a staff or bar. Some one once suggested that I ought to write a short passage to fill a gap in a Beethoven score. Ah, that would be criminal. To rewrite Beethoven! I couldn't answer him. In training the singers, we also have a lot of trouble sometimes. We have to be sure they do not miss a note or add one when a gap is approached, for that would set the tempo all awry.”

He’s so fabulously pissed about the gall it would take to cut a measure or tweak a transition. But it’s noteworthy that from the get-go, opera itself resisted a 1:1 translation. From these roots, composers took it upon themselves to compose radio-specific operas. In his 1938 essay Music in Radio, composer and writer Theodor W. Adorno pointed out: “The idea is that we should no longer broadcast over the radio but play on the radio in the same sense that one plays on a violin.*” In other words: the radio medium became an instrument. [*Cited from Anna Schürmer's 2022 The Extensions of Opera: Radio, Internet, and Immersion for Contemporary Music Review]

The Voice of the Forest 

Looking to the beginning of the genre, I’m going to play a movement from The Voice of the Forest (1937), an obscure one-act radio opera by the great Czech composer Martinu. You may be noticing a theme here – talking voices emanating from the forest. It’s a rather traditional concept in opera, and Martinu would have been familiar with Dinorah’s “Shadow Song,” which I quoted in my aria by Meyerbeer. 

The recording I’m sharing is from 1999; it’s the first and only recording of Martinu’s The Voice of the Forest. The work was composed in 1935 and never had a live premiere. According to an American Record Guide review from 2000 by Carl Bauman of the 1999 Prague Philharmonia recording: “The Voice of the Forest was commissioned by Prague Radio in 1935…and includes a chorus and seven soloists. It is a considerably complex score, and that may be the reason it has never been actually staged in a theater. Martinu used a text by the great Czech surrealist poet, Vitezslav Nezval. The score is songful and draws on Czech folk songs. The notes don't summarize the plot, but it involves a bride who has lost her way in the forest at night. She is rescued by a band of bandits who prove to be perfect gentlemen. She is re-rescued at dawn by a young forester and they pledge eternal love.”  Here is “One and Twenty, One and Twenty” from Martinu’s The Voice of the Forest.

Martinu The Voice in the Forest

That was “One and Twenty, One and Twenty” from Martinu’s The Voice of the Forest featuring the Prague Philharmonia. There’s a kind of existentialism about radio opera that I want to briefly touch on. In his 2000 review of the Martinu CD you just heard an excerpt from, critic Anderson Martin for Fanfare Magazine (Vol. 24, Iss. 2) wrote that “For many people, contemporary opera has become a suspicious phenomenon and runs the risk of finishing its career in a cul-de-sac. Its form has reached a dead end. Moreover, because the principles of Romantic opera are coming to an end, it is unable to offer any kind of gospel for us, and those who direct their efforts to extending these conditions are doing scenic creativity poor service…The plot hardly matters any more than that of Les Larmes du couteau: Viíteslav Nezval's libretto puts a tongue-in-cheek, hobnail-booted folktale of love under threat in a surrealist framework. Its importance is as a hook for Martinu's music.”

The Adventures of King Arthur

I love that Anderson Martin calls contemporary opera “suspicious” and references the “surrealist framework.” I’m having a bit of fun in the surrealist forest framework and so we’re staying among the trees in our next example – Polish composer and violinist Grażyna Bacewicz’s 1959 comic-fantasy radio opera The Adventures of King Arthur.

As previously mentioned, radio opera peaked in the 1950s and 1960s, so this 1959 example is from the radio opera golden age. To give you some context as to Grażyna Bacewicz’s opera plot, here is a blurb from the website dedicated to her music. “The whole action revolves around a question posed to Arthur by the Giant living in the forest cave: What do all women want? The Giant makes the king’s life dependent on finding the right answer to the question. The women asked by Arthur have various desires; yet for the Giant only one answer matters: every woman wants to have her own way! The right answer is known only to an old and ugly witch living in the forest. She agrees to give it to Arthur under one condition – that she will get a beautiful knight for a husband. Only faithful Gavein agrees to marry her to save the king. The knight’s loyalty to the king makes the witch turn into a beautiful girl, as a spell cast on her disappears.”

Here are two of my favorite tracks from the 2014 recording of Grażyna Bacewicz’s The Adventures of King Arthur featuring the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra. The Bard’s brief “Step By Step, King Arthur Rode To The Giant In The Forst” and then the Witch’s “King Arthur, King Arthur.”

Grażyna Bacewicz’s The Adventures of King Arthur

You just heard excerpts from Grażyna Bacewicz’s The Adventures of King Arthur. Bacewicz composed her radio opera in the golden age of the 1950s and 60s, and after that boom the genre had a dip. In her 2022 article The Extensions of Opera: Radio, Internet, and Immersion for Contemporary Music Review (Vol. 41, Iss. 4), media culture scientist Anna Schürmer says the following on radio opera: “The lack of a visual level may be one reason why the genre was ultimately unable to establish itself. In the end, the radiophonic potentials could not compensate for the losses to the eye. In addition, new audiovisual platforms, such as television or cinema, were increasingly preferred over the purely acousmatic medium of radio. For these reasons, radio operas are rarely performed, and when they are, they are performed in concert. On the radio today, if at all, one hears conventional operas in recordings and streams from real opera houses.”

If it’s not glaringly obvious, I’m a big believer in radio opera and feel that it’s overdue for a renaissance. My aria, which we performed live at the top of the hour, can be considered retro and responsive to the Martinu and Bacewicz. But there’s a whole world of approaches that contemporary composers take. In other words, not all radio operas are set in the forest with a mysterious voice beckoning from the darkness. That said, in my completely unbiased opinion the subject matter fits well. There’s something about radio that, for me, resembles mediumship. A voice coming from a box, tuning into different frequencies, that sort of thing. But there are limitless plots, with varying degrees of abstraction, or rather, “surrealist frameworks.” And perhaps it’s the fact that the genre has been callously dismissed that invites inventiveness. Since the heyday is done, what is there to lose?

Invisible People

Here I want to turn to contemporary composer and sound designer Yvette Janine Jackson’s radio opera Invisible People, which was first performed in 2013. From a 2014 article in Lateral Journal (Iss. 3) written by the composer: “Invisible People (A Radio Opera) is a series of site-specific performance-compositions confronting queer black identity. The radio opera concept was instigated after hearing John Cage’s The City Wears a Slouch Hat in the mid-nineties…The notion to create a linear narrative with Invisible People was abandoned early on. The libretto is derived from found texts from a variety of sources including historic speeches, sermons, news articles, and online postings. Its modular and improvisational framework permits the length, order, and meaning to be easily modified thereby rendering a new performance from each iteration.”

For those who don’t know the work John Cage’s The City Wears a Slouch Hat from 1942, it is a cult classic. So when researching radio operas and finding Invisible People, I was immediately intrigued by this sentiment and a few of Jackon’s tracks in particular really got me thinking about abstraction in opera. So, here is “Stage Black” from Yvette Janine Jackson’s radio opera Invisible People.

Yvette Janine Jackson’s Invisible People (A Radio Opera)

Another One Bites

That was “Stage Black” from Yvette Janine Jackson’s radio opera Invisible People. Thinking back to what Jackson said about the modular framework brings us nicely to Queens-based composer and librettist Jason Cady’s Another One Bites from Experiments in Opera’s massive four-hour long modular podcast opera Aqua Net & Funyuns. Featuring five original stories, each written by a different librettist/composer combo, Aqua Net & Funyuns resembles a nested series. I know Jason Cady and Experiments in Opera from my time living in New York – I played with the company on viola a few times. Whenever we rehearsed Jason’s music, everyone started grooving and dancing. So I hope we get some quality vibing with this one. In Jason’s opera, a high school student ditches an anti-drug assembly to smoke pot and hides from a cop in a porta-potty—which becomes a portal to a parallel universe. You know, the standard opera story. Here is a taste of Jason Cady’s Another One Bites.

Jason Cady's Another One Bites

That was Act 1 of Jason Cady’s Another One Bites from Experiments in Opera’s Aqua Net & Funyuns. For my New York City listeners, Experiments in Opera is presenting their writer’s room creation Five Ways to Die this June, featuring music by Jason and four other composer and librettist pairs. Check out their website to learn more.

Okay I’ve mentioned the John Cage The City Wears a Slouch Hat from 1942 a few times now and want to end it with just a bit of that in our remaining moments. Please enjoy this excerpt!

Opening of John Cage's The City Wears a Slouch Hat

That was a segment of John Cage’s The City Wears a Slouch Hat and this is Anna Heflin wrapping up a radio opera extravaganza! Thank you for letting me wax poetic about radio opera and I’m so happy to share this music and genre with you! And for my fellow Angelenos, come out to Dublab next Saturday for a special SAGE USC THORNTON performance at dublab, curated by Moor Mother featuring more opera from yours truly for cellist Aaron Wolff and works from my colleagues at USC. Hope to see you there!

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