Beautiful Mishearings – Guest Post

I’ve just gotten back from a hugely enriching week of supporting several amazing people in creating an opportunity for high-school and junior-high-school students of tsunami-stricken areas of Japan.

Check back here later this month for more details about that experience, but, in the meantime, I’d like to share the first of hopefully many guest posts by Katherine Hollander, librettist for my upcoming opera, “A Lawn in the Sky.” She’s kindly offered to share her thoughts about her experiences in this creative project, and, in the first of these posts, below, she writes about how the working title of the opera came about:


Beautiful Mishearings: How This Opera Got its (Working) Title

In the mid-eighties, so the story goes, the young playwright Tony Kushner was visiting an installation honoring the work of the great choreographer, Agnes de Mille. A video recording of de Mille was playing; she was describing a dance piece she had created, and Kushner heard her say the name of the piece was “A Bright Room Called Day.” But that wasn’t the name of the piece. The name of the piece was “A Bridegroom Called Death.”

Somewhere in that mishearing was a particular magical slippage, a conflation and resonance. Kushner took the name “A Bright Room Called Day” and gave it to a play he was working on—a funny, poignant, sometimes ghoulish little tale about myopic but good-hearted dissidents in the early years of the Third Reich. (I say “little” with real affection for the work, and because Kushner’s other plays are so enormous and overflowing that “Bright Room” feels as intricate and manageable and miniature as a dollhouse by comparison.) Within the cozy and intimate artificiality of the title (which mirrors feel of the apartment in which the play unfolds) stalks the darker image of de Mille’s fatal bridegroom—and death and the devil do, in fact, haunt the play. I always admired the nesting dolls of meaning contained in the title and illuminated by the anecdote.

I can’t claim to do much at the level of this very great playwright, except, perhaps—as all of us do—to mishear. And the story about Kushner taught me to seize on these mishearings and use them for all they’re worth.

A few years ago, when I was living in Madison, Wisconsin (far from my beloved New England), my friend the singer-songwriter Rose Polenzani came and played a show at the coffee house and performance space Mother Fool’s. I’d always loved Rose’s music, and I found her stage presence profoundly compelling. After she had performed a few songs I knew, she began a moody, raw, but delicate tune that had me almost immediately near tears. It seemed to speak so much to the feeling of being askew, out of joint, choosing to be in one place, longing to be in another. The song gathered speed and force and began to circle around a refrain that conjured a strange and beautiful image: “A lawn in the sky,” I thought I heard Rose singing, “a lawn in the sky.” That lawn in the sky—isolated, lonely, and magical; safe, misanthropic and monkish; damaging and therapeutic all at once—seemed to be both where I wanted to be and where I already was.


Of course, Rose wasn’t singing “A lawn in the sky.” But the image stayed with me, and finally, quite a few years later, when Rose released an album that included this masterful song, and I learned its real name: “The Lawn and The Sky.” The central image in Rose’s song is a swing; the speaker seesaws between seeing the grass below and the heavens above. The song still gives me goosebumps—but the image of a lawn in the sky, it turned out, was my own, and mine to keep.

By this point, Simon and I had been working on our opera for some time. The lyrics I really needed to provide were for our protagonist, the straggler soldier who has finally realized that his belief that he is still at war is utterly false. I wanted to find a way for him to express the enormous let-down this realization represents; I also wanted to show him looking at the life he has lived—not from his usual view inside it, but from his new position of being outside it. It occurred to me that the image of the lawn in the sky was the way in.
A lawn in the sky is an impossibility. There is something diminutive and playful about it; it belongs to childhood. But it isn’t real. It’s a game that is over. As our hero sings, “But the lawn was an island. The sky/was the sea. The stars were far/ distant from me.” After I realized the centrality of the image, the words for the aria “A Lawn in the Sky” came to me quite quickly, in a kind of half-overwhelming trance. I knew right away that, for me, “A Lawn in the Sky” was the heart of the opera.

Months later, Simon wrote to me to say that he wanted to move the aria to a more privileged position, to make it more important to the piece as a whole. I agreed. Before we knew it, the aria had given its name to the opera.

I think Rose’s raw, eloquent swinging—her “The Lawn and The Sky”—haunts my “A Lawn in the Sky” in something akin to the way de Mille’s bridegroom haunts Kushner’s bright room. My own feelings of self-imposed exile are there, too, faintly. Another set of nesting dolls, not as magical or powerful as Kushner’s, to be sure, but there nonetheless.

I’m learning that an opera itself can be a lawn in the sky—an artificial, magical, impossible space where we witness hauntings and unfoldings that might resonate with our own. And that might, perhaps, even result in a few new beautiful mishearings.

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