TIME, OPERA AND EVERYDAY LIFE
In September, 1982, twelve performances of my opera The Ponder Heart took place at the New Stage Theatre in Jackson, MS. Based on a short novel by Eudora Welty, Miss Edna Earle Ponder tells of life in tiny Clay, Mississippi, and the comic vicissitudes of her Uncle Daniel. Now, a quarter-century later, it will receive its second presentation in a small church in Charlemont, Massachusetts,by the Musicians of Melodious Accord in an abbreviated concert version. In all the flurry of deciding what to cut, entering the manuscript into the computer, casting, etc., my mind has been ‘pondering’ the many levels of time existing concurrently in this venture.
First, there’s chronological time. 1982 seems a long time ago in my life-span: I’ve acquired grand-children, Eudora Welty has died, and the political world has undergone many changes. But the moment we enter the opera, we’re in the 1930’s, in a town where whites and blacks, rich and poor, innocents and schemers exist in a television-less culture. We meet Miss Edna Earle and Uncle Daniel, both in their fifties, the last of the richest family in the region – very different from the usual young, romantic leads. Uncle Daniel is a kind of ‘holy innocent’, who lives a charmed life: a friend to all, he has never had to cope with either love or money. These disastrous encounters form the plot.
When I’m conducting the music, I’m enmeshed in concentric circles of time. I am me, in 2010, recreating the 1930’s in songs that can only exist in time: tempo, duration, meter. But that doesn’t begin to take into account the emotional time conjured up. I remember the shock I felt when I clocked an aria I had just written that felt very long – and it lasted less than a minute.
Moreover, I’m interacting with characters who live in their own individual time: their age, and their relationship to the others in the community. The opera itself spans about five years of time. In conversation with me, Eudora herself said that the time Bonnie Dee is away is indefinite. I should have written ‘after cotton-picking’ instead of counting years,” she said. We were both dismayed to see the costumers for the production searching for clothes of 1937 as well as 1932. Their great find was a tiny antiquated shoe-store from which they bought all the stock! And, because I recalled that, I remember the women struggling into laced-up corsets, so the dresses would fit properly. Ah, the mysteries of time and memory.
Memory and time: is there anything that doesn’t shift in that space? Which thought leads me back to everyday life. There really is no past and future: there is only ‘now’, the eternal instant that seems to pass away, but doesn’t. I suppose it’s natural that in my eighty-fifth year I should be pondering (again) the nature of time – right now it seems to me like the core sample that geologists take, boring deep into the earth for layered evidence of past epochs. There’s only this moment – but it stretches deep below and high above the ‘now’, uniting past and future in memories, associations, hopes, perhaps revealing a growing understanding of lasting values and the lessening influence of the transitory.
Time: we’re in it and out of it at the same moment. Think of me, trying to keep my balance on that core, that ‘now’, dug deep into a whirling globe, at the mercy of both time and space. Thank goodness for music, which shapes time into beauty.