Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Odyssey Opera Release Schuller’s “The Fisherman and His Wife” 

Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Odyssey Opera Release Schuller’s “The Fisherman and His Wife”  
Presented by Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Odyssey Opera
Gunther Schuller: The Fisherman and His Wife (#1970)
Opera by Gunther Schuller
Libretto by John Updike
Based on a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm
Conducted by Gil Rose
Featuring: Sondra Kelly (mezzo-soprano), Steven Goldstein (tenor), David Kravitz (baritone), Katrina Galka (soprano), Ethan Depuy (tenor)

Release Date: April 7, 2020 
Available to purchase HERE

Review by Kitty Drexel

Boston, MA — The opening bars of Gunter Schuller’s The Fisherman and His Wife sound like the scoring for an episode of the Stark Trek: The Original Series. Not the opening theme song famous for it’s 70s crooning lounge jam. The organ, shivering strings, and cacophony coming from the woodwinds remind me of composer Fred Steiner’s work in the episode, “The Corbomite Maneuver.” 

Gunter’s work doesn’t politely introduce its listener to his opera. We’re introduced to a dire world of conflict from the opening chords. The orchestra paints an uneasy ocean with low tones and dissonance.  We’re caught in a negative reverie until a forceful “Meow!” (Katrina Galka as the cat) breaks the atmospheric tension caused by the orchestra. This small world hides stark unhappiness that unravels toward the ear in rumbling phrases.

The Fisherman and His Wife is based on the Grimm Fairytale. As forwarned by the orchestra, this isn’t your Dad’s happy-go-lucky, Disneyfied fairy tale. Schuller and librettist John Updike set the German tale with its depressing end. It tells of humanity’s great greed and warns that abusive marriages without respectful boundaries are doomed to fail. 

Once upon a time, somewhere in Germany or maybe in your own town by the sea, an impoverished Fisherman (Steven Goldstein) catches an enchanted flounder (David Kravitz). The flounder convinces the Fisherman that he is actually a prince! The Prince claims that he “shall not taste well.”  

Back at home, his Wife (Sondra Kelly) hurls abuse at the Fisherman for letting the Prince go. She says that the Fisherman should have asked the Prince for a wish. The Fisherman is confused. He likes his simple life. His home may only be as small as a vinegar jar but he has a loving wife, a loyal cat (Katrina Galka), and a home. The Wife convinces the Fisherman to go back to the Prince to ask for a luxurious cottage where they could live in ease. It’s the least the Prince could do since the Fisherman saved his life.  

As in all fairy tales, the Wife isn’t content with just a cottage. She tests the Prince’s powers. She demands from the Prince a castle, then a kingdom because she wants to be King, then to be Emporer, to be Pope, and then finally to be as powerful as God. Each time the simple Fisherman goes to the Prince and asks for the wishes that his wife demands. Each time the Prince grants the wish and tells the Fisherman to go home because the wish has been granted. Only the last wish bears unexpected results. The Fisherman, his Wife, and their Cat must learn to live with the consequences of their greed. 

Schuller doesn’t write the most intuitive vocal lines. His duet for tenor and soprano has the soprano vocal line in the stratosphere, chewing on complex lyrics. Katrina Galka wrestles with this difficult vocal line. Her clear, pure soprano skates across the majority of her role but this duet would try even the most flexible of coloratura voices. Sondra Kelly’s dramatic mezzo overpowers the role of the Wife. Hers is a powerful instrument and it sounds restrained in this recording. 

Whereas, the men are suited for their roles. Research into Schuller’s composition style would tell the listener if Schuller wrote better lines for tenor and bass voices. Based on the recording, Schuller’s writing for the mezzo and soprano voice lacks understanding of the cis female voice. 

This one-act opera is a fairy tale but it’s not for children. Or, it’s not for unsupervised, sensitive children. Schuller’s orchestrations don’t sound joyful; they aren’t light hearted. The complex tones and lyrics may stress child listeners. On the other hand, John Updike’s clever lyrics are safe for the whole family.

Schuller’s opera isn’t easily digestible for every age.  Adults hoping to introduce the next generation to opera could use The Fisherman and His Wife to do so. But, it will require critical discussion. On the other hand, John Updike’s clever lyrics are safe for the whole family.

This review is based on the digital, MP3 version of the opera. The booklet is available HERE

At A Glance
Gunther Schuller: The Fisherman and His Wife 
Composer: Gunter Schuller (1925-2015) 
Librettist: John Updike
Release Date: April 7, 2020 
Performers: Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), Odyssey Opera, Sondra Kelly (mezzo-soprano), Steven Goldstein (tenor), David Kravitz (baritone), Katrina Galka (soprano), Ethan Depuy (tenor), led by Gil Rose (conductor)
TRT: 64:48 
Available to Purchase HERE
CD booklet HERE

About the Opera from The Fisherman and His Wife press release– “Schuller’s opera dates from 1970 and has only had two Boston performances: one by the Opera Company of Boston under the composer’s baton, and a second by BMOP and Odyssey Opera as part of a 2015 memorial concert following Schuller’s death. The latter was described as “powerful…Schuller’s score has shimmering textures and brooding, Britten-like chromaticism that points to psychological depths that just aren’t present in the drama.” (Boston Classical Review) 

About Gunther Schuller — Ranking among the most eclectic of his generation or any other, Gunter Schuller was an American composer, conductor, jazz and classical performer, author/historian, music publisher, record producer, and creator of a revolutionary, hybrid style known as “Third Stream.” 

Schuller served as President of the New England Conservatory, where he established a successful degree-granting jazz program, from 1967-1977.

He was the winner of several major honors including the MacArthur Genius Award, DownBeat Lifetime Achievement Award, a Pulitzer Prize, two Grammy Awards, and inaugural membership in the American Classical Music Hall of Fame. 

About BMOP/sound –– BMOP’s independent record label, was created in 2008 to provide a platform for BMOP’s extensive archive of music, as well as to provide widespread, top- quality, permanent access to both classics of the 20th century and the music of today’s most innovative composers. 

Launched in 2019, BMOP’s digital radio station, BMOP/radio, streams BMOP/sound’s entire catalog and airs special programming. 

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