The Faust Project conjures up a new version of Goethe’s Romantic Era masterpiece
In a first for this series, ‘A Musical Feast’ will offer two performances of its staged reading of a new version of Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s immortal classic drama of a man who sells his soul to the Devil, at 8pm on Friday February 3 and on Saturday February 4 in, in the Burchfield Penny Art Center on the Buffalo State Campus. Vincent O’Neill, hot off a star turn as Salieri in the joint BPO/ICTC smash hit production of Amadeus, will be Mephistopheles, who might well have been a role model for the character of Salieri. David Oliver, who enjoyed his own star turn as Sigmund Freud in last season’s Road Less Travelled production of Freud’s Last Session is Faust. The multi-talented Josephine Hogan has several roles, including that of Gretchen, Faust’s doomed inamorata, while Kurt Guba also appears in several roles.
Part I of Faust enjoyed a remarkable success during the 19th century, both in the many different states that constituted what we now know as Germany, and much farther afield. Goethe wrote Part II of Faust some 25 years later, and that much longer, more philosophical work has never enjoyed the popularity of the first part. As a complete theatrical work, it has only very rarely been staged, and with good reason. A version of the complete Faust, including all of Parts I and II, performed in Hanover, Germany in the year 2000 had a running time of 21 hours. This staged reading of selections from both parts, chosen by the local award winning playwright Neil Wechsler, has a projected running time of around 80 minutes. It will include incidental music composed especially for this production by Nathan Heidelberger, a talented young composer who recently received his PhD in composition from the University at Buffalo.
“Charles and Irene Haupt were aware that Neil had been developing a Faust adaptation”, says Heidelberger. “Following the success of their work together on A Musical Feast’s presentation of Samuel Beckett and Morton Feldman’s Words and Music (which, like The Faust Project, featured Vincent O’Neill and David Oliver), they suggested that A Musical Feast might also be a venue for Neil’s version of Faust. They reached out to me last winter about writing music for the project, a
and they connected me with Neil. We’ve been working together on it since then, with support from the UB Creative Arts Initiative. For Neil, the process of preparing the script was largely one of figuring out what to cut. While he removed some scenes completely, his approach was to pare down scenes to the bare minimum. In this way, he could preserve the overall arc of the play—that of Faust’s journey with Mephistopheles. It’s just that now that arc unfolds over a practical amount of time, as opposed to the seventeen hours it would take to present the entirety of Goethe’s original. Neil worked primarily from Bayard Taylor’s verse translation of the German. It’s a bit archaic, but we both feel it works well with the music, and with the format of a condensed, rapid succession of scenes”.
“The size of the ensemble—six instrumentalists plus conductor—was set more or less from the beginning” says Heidelberger. “In some ways, this was the result of practical considerations—how many people can comfortably fit on the Burchfield stage, for example—but it also stemmed from my own inclination toward composing for chamber ensembles. There had initially been some talk about including a singer in the lineup, but Neil and I both soon realized pretty that the combination of sung and spoken text could become a bit too confusing, given how much information the script needs to convey in such a short span of time. In the end, I arrived at the ensemble (flute, oboe, saxophone, two cellos, and percussion) by considering both what kind of sound I wanted to achieve with the music and what musicians I’d want to work with on the project. We’ve really assembled a fine ensemble: Emlyn Johnson on flute, Megan Kyle on oboe, David Wegehaupt on saxophone, John Smigielski on percussion, and Erica Snowden and Katie Weissman on cello, with Matt Chamberlain conducting”.
“Matt and I overlapped a little bit at Oberlin”, Heidelberger says, “though we didn’t really know each other at the time. In addition to this project, he’s conducted one other piece of mine here in Buffalo. His job in The Faust Project is particularly difficult—he must always be listening to the actors as well as to the musicians, and he needs to always be ready to initiate the next musical cue with very little warning. Matt is an excellent conductor, though, so he’s more than up to the task, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with him. I think it helps that he’s also a composer—in rehearsals he’s very sensitive to the compositional side of things, as well as to more standard coordination issues. As I was finalizing the performance materials, he also made some important suggestions that helped clarify the notation considerably”.
“For Neil and me, I think part of the appeal of this project is the sheer impossibility of it. Goethe’s Faust is a sprawling work, full of so many different episodes, characters, and ideas. In addition to bargaining his soul away to Mephistopheles, Faust travels back in time to ancient Greece to marry Helen of Troy, pals around with a miniature human created in a vial, undertakes a massive civil engineering project to reclaim land from the ocean, and much, much more. It’s almost absurd to cram all of that into just a concert-length presentation for four actors and six musicians, but it’s awfully tempting to try. Ultimately, our hope is that the project captures the pitfalls, triumphs, and ambiguities of human striving. For us, that’s the heart of this timeless story”.
Heidelberger says “I approached Faust knowing full well it is a subject that has been treated by many composers before me. I’m not totally sure why that is—I guess maybe there’s something about the way Faust’s character is always striving to accomplish more and more that particularly resonates with composers. (Probably the same reason that Thomas Mann’s version of Faust would be about a composer, or that Faustian mythology would spring up around a figure like the blues legend Robert Johnson) Given all that history, I saw this project as not just an opportunity to delve into the Faust legend itself but also as a chance to reflect, through my own compositional process, upon the rich body of music that the story has inspired. Of particular significance to me were Schubert’s song “Gretchen am spinnrade” and Stravinsky’s L’histoire du Soldat—both Faust-based pieces, and both defining works in their respective genres. In the end, a lot of the harmonic material for the project was derived from these two works, albeit in a highly refracted form. For listeners familiar with these pieces, perhaps there will be the occasional glimmer of recognition, but mostly I think the musical references remain below the surface, and the sounding result is decidedly my own. There are passing allusions to some other Faust pieces as well—to Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, for example—but nothing as pervasive as the Schubert and Stravinsky”.
Tickets: $20/$5 students/$10 Burchfield Penney members. Phone: 878-6011 or visit: www.burchfieldpenney.org