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Glimpses of ‘Lily,’ a vanished opera

A fresh hearing for lost Kirchner score

Leon Kirchner considered his sole opera, “Lily,’’ his “gesamtkunstwerk.’’

If an opera falls in New York City, in front of thousands of people, will it ever be heard from again?

In the case of Leon Kirchner’s “Lily,’’ this is not a simple question. The distinguished American composer, who died in 2009, left behind a deeply admired body of work with many triumphs. His sole opera, “Lily,’’ based on Saul Bellow’s novel “Henderson the Rain King,’’ was not among them.

Laurence Lesser is one of the early champions of “Lily’’ who will reunite to perform excerpts from the opera.

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Kirchner’s work on “Lily’’ stretched over 18 years of his life. The composer, who lived in Cambridge and taught at Harvard for almost three decades, referred to it as his “gesamtkunstwerk,’’ an all-encompassing work of art. On the morning after its premiere in 1977 at New York City Opera, the chief music critic of the New York Times had a less kind description: “stillborn.’’

The opera’s mixed reception - and the sharply negative review from the Times - was a devastating blow for Kirchner, and questions about the fate of “Lily’’ have hovered around the opera for decades. It received no subsequent productions, no second chances, no recordings. Without any performance opportunities, Kirchner never had the heart to revise it. Thirty-five years later, for those who were not there in 1977, the opera exists almost like a phantom, a major stage work by one of the most respected American composers of the last half-century that has basically vanished into thin air.

Fortunately, a few years before the premiere, Kirchner fashioned a concert work for soprano and a large chamber ensemble based on about 20 minutes of music from the opening of the opera. The first champions of this chamber “Lily’’ included a group of idealistic young musicians at the Marlboro Music Festival, who performed it in Vermont in the summer of 1973, playing off parts held together by tape. They later recorded the chamber version.

Cellist Laurence Lesser was among them, and years later, when he assumed the presidency of New England Conservatory and curated its First Monday concert series, he asked Kirchner about the music for “Lily.’’ Kirchner demurred. The essential prerecorded electronics had been lost, he said, and promised to look for the tapes used at the premiere. After the composer’s death in 2009, they were found in boxes in his Cambridge home.

So it turns out “Lily,’’ after all, is not disappearing without a fight. The 1973 recording of the chamber version was reissued last year on a disc by Albany Records. And on April 2, armed with the recovered tapes and a newly reconstructed version of the score, the chamber “Lily’’ will finally receive a live performance on NEC’s First Monday series in Jordan Hall. Lesser will be among its performers; so will clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, violinist James Buswell, and soprano Diana Hoagland, all of whom appeared on the 1973 recording.

Kirchner wrote the “Lily’’ libretto himself based on the first part of Bellow’s celebrated novel, in which the American millionaire pig farmer Eugene Henderson (Lily is his wife), journeys to Africa seeking deeper fulfillment, and unintentionally wreaks havoc while trying to help a local village with its water source. Kirchner had been immediately taken by the novel, finding its themes profoundly resonant with his own cultural critique, his ideas about the spiritual impoverishment of modern American life. Later he saw Henderson’s misadventures as a metaphor for America’s ambitions abroad and its intervention in Vietnam, calling Henderson “the archetypal American - in search of his destiny, continually looking and wanting, a man of tremendous energy who inadvertently destroys everything he touches.’’

Most of Kirchner’s champions blame the failure of the premiere itself on the frenetic circumstances surrounding the original production. As Robert Riggs recounts in his authoritative biography of the composer, Kirchner, who was also a formidable conductor and pianist, was asked to conduct his own highly complex score. Even an aspect as seemingly simple as legal performance rights became a torturously complex affair that was not cleared up until just eight days before the premiere.

One thing was clear: “Lily’’ required an expert stage director to bring across the sophisticated themes of the novel as well as the advanced musical ideas and theatrical effects devised by Kirchner. Bellow, who was originally planning to write the libretto himself before backing out, wanted Ingmar Bergman to direct. City Opera proposed Frank Corsaro, who told Kirchner that Henderson should be strictly a speaking role performed by Zero Mostel.

The composer wouldn’t have it, and the staging of “Lily’’ ultimately fell to Tom O’Horgan, who had directed only one opera in his life, and was known for his success with “Jesus Christ Superstar’’ and “Hair.’’ The ineptitude of his production was commented on in almost every review. As summarized by Riggs, “O’Horgan brought a brash Broadway sensibility to the production that resulted in a colorful travelogue with a dose of humor and a disturbing use of cliches, all of which discouraged consideration of any but the most literal surface reading of the opera’s content and significance.’’

The question of whether Kirchner’s libretto should be revised was also raised by several reviewers, but the absence of future productions seemed to make revisions a moot point. Kirchner shifted his attention back to his teaching and conducting, and Riggs notes it was almost four years before he completed another major work.

As for the opera’s score itself, the reissued 1973 recording of the brief chamber “Lily’’ makes an immediately striking impression, full of fiercely imagined music, ruggedly lyrical, hauntingly atmospheric, crackling with life. It begins with a transporting flute solo from the opera’s opening pages. There is stratospherically high writing for soprano, sung in the opera by the African princess Mtalba, in an ancient language of Kirchner’s own invention. Her music is juxtaposed with a wry song sung by Lily, which begins with the line “Meet me in my orgone box/ With a double bourbon on the rocks.’’ The tape of prerecorded acoustic and electronic sounds also features Kirchner’s own voice intoning one of Henderson’s bumptiously questing monologues: “I want. I want. I want! My heart is consumed with the demand. But it never says a thing.’’

As sampled on disc, the “Lily’’ excerpts tantalize, and it should be fascinating to finally hear them in a live performance in Jordan Hall.

Most of all, this chamber version makes one intensely curious about what this avant-garde opera might have been - and could yet still be - in an ambitious contemporary staging that finally gives this piece its due.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.
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