Two Houses of Usher at SF Opera

Sometimes, says opera singer Jason Bridges, it's nice to do something a little different than the usual “boy meets girl” story. For instance, a “devastated brother with an ailing sister in a decaying castle” story can be a nice change of pace.

As the narrator of Gordon Getty's Usher House, Bridges plays Edgar Allan Poe, a role he took on for the 2014 world stage premiere at the Welsh National Opera. With its hints of incest and a rising-from-the-dead theme, you wouldn't call Getty's opera a typical love story. Poe's oeuvre is not short on otherworldly tales, and “The Fall of the House of Usher” — a tale about Roderick Usher, his sister Madeline, and a glow-in-the-dark lake — may be his most unsettling.

The San Francisco Opera takes on two versions of the story when Usher House makes its U.S. premiere this week as a double bill with Claude Debussy's La Chute de la Maison Usher.

“It's interesting to do a piece based on a gothic horror story,” says Bridges, a tenor who has played roles in operas including Così fan tutte, La Traviata, and Lucia di Lammermoor. “Contemporary media can be so graphic and visually based, but the subtlety of letting your own mind create horror can be scarier than having a movie throw up a lot of graphics. Your mind can come up with far creepier things.”

Getty's insertion of Poe as the narrator in his opera adds a lot to the piece, says conductor Lawrence Foster, who's making his debut at S.F. Opera this season, first with The Magic Flute, and now with these two shorter works.

“It's a stroke of genius,” Foster says. “Poe was quite an unusual person, and his real-life strangeness makes him as a character a perfect foil to Roderick Usher. It adds a fantastic dimension to have the author in the piece.”

Foster thinks Debussy's opera — which he left unfinished when he died in 1918, and which Robert Orledge reconstructed — doesn't resemble Getty's in any way.

“They're very contrasted, musically,” Foster says. “Getty's music is quite Americana, and the writing is very transparent, with enormous importance given to the text. It's highly dramatic and the last words are sung by Poe, and it ends in total hysteria — an enormous contrast to the Debussy, which is almost a sad reflection on the fall.”

Getty, who Foster compares to the San Francisco Symphony's Michael Tilson Thomas in his concern for the text, makes references in Usher House to literature, history, and royal families. In an interview in the show's program notes, Getty says he wanted to make the story about chivalry and gallantry battling evil. So he turned the three principal characters — Roderick, his sister Madeline, and Poe, the narrator — into the “kind of people you'd want your children to marry.” (He does acknowledge that this may not be exactly what Poe had in mind.)

To establish the house's evil, Getty creates an 11th-century sovereign who orders the house to be torn apart and its stones cast into the “tarn,” or mountain lake. Roderick Usher's grandfather later has them dredged up and the house reconstructed in America near another tarn. The Usher ancestors? They've been in the crypt all along, and show up in the story.

For some people, contemporary opera means atonal music, which can be a hard sell. Bridges says that's not what is happening here, adding that there are videos onstage to help tell the story.

“It's very approachable and audience-friendly and eerie the way Mr. Getty uses orchestral colors,” Bridges says about Usher House. “Certain characters have melodic phrases that repeat, which is quite nice. There's one very beautiful aria that I happily get to sing, and there's a beautiful melody when Roderick is setting the scene and explaining the history of the Usher line and about building and moving the house.”

Additionally, Foster says he tries to be as faithful as possible to the musical text of each opera and to its different sounds. The Debussy, he says, is the ultimate idea of French music, down to a particular way of using the bows in the string section, while Getty's music has open harmonies and an Americana sound reminiscent of Aaron Copland.

“I mean this in the very, very best sense,” he says. “It's like the highest class of film music, where at certain moments there are dramatic events on stage when words don't suffice, and he lets the orchestra explode.”

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