A New Opera Mashes Up Monteverdi and W.E.B. Du Bois

Morality takes a hike in Claudio Monteverdi’s final opera, “L’Incoronazione di Poppea.” Bold in its satire and explicit in its sensuality, even more than 350 years after its creation, the work gives its ruthless lovers, Nero and Poppea, everything they desire.

A decadent exploration of Nero’s Rome, “Poppea” might seem to share little with “The Comet,” a W.E.B. Du Bois short story from 1920. Using tropes of sci-fi catastrophe, Du Bois, the famous Black sociologist, asks what it would take for a racially equitable civilization to emerge. But, like Monteverdi’s opera, it has an amoral, ice-cold finish: After the merest possibility of interracial love, the status quo of segregation returns.

On Friday, both the opera and the story will be brought together, united by their common denominator of jaundiced cynicism, in “The Comet/Poppea,” which is premiering at Geffen Contemporary, a warehouse-style space at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. (There are already plans for it to travel to Philadelphia this fall, to New York next year and to the Schwarzman Center at Yale University in 2026.)

ePresented in Los Angeles by MOCA and the director Yuval Sharon’s company of operatic experimenters, the Industry, “The Comet/Poppea” was commissioned by the American Modern Opera Company. Over a 90-minute run time, it alternates between a radically pared-down “Poppea” and an adaptation of Du Bois’s story by the librettist Douglas Kearney and the composer George E. Lewis, for a mash-up featuring stark transitions — and superimpositions — between Monteverdi’s Baroque style and Lewis’s high-modernist states of frenzy.

Lewis’s score for “The Comet” could stand on its own as a one-act. For this production, though, it is blended with “Poppea,” and rather freely: In the weeks before the premiere of “The Comet/Poppea,” the precise sequential pairing of scenes from the two scores had yet to be firmly decided.

Still, during an early June rehearsal in Manhattan, thematic resonances between “The Comet” and “Poppea” were clearly discernible as singers traversed their different musical worlds. That move, back and forth, has unfolded experimentally, and not without challenges. But at the rehearsal, Sharon, who is directing the production, projected calm. “No rush this morning,” he said, welcoming input from the cast.

Among those who spoke up was the soprano Joelle Lamarre, who, while working on her approach to a mournful scene for Nellie (in “The Comet”), also needed to consider her music from “Poppea.” So, she asked the Industry’s musical director, Marc Lowenstein, for a slower tempo before a transition between the scores.

Explaining her transition into the world of “Poppea,” she told the conductor: “You want it to be ‘dance,’ and my consciousness is not there.” She was speaking of moving into the light and buoyant Monteverdi from a tonally gorgeous aria by Lewis, inspired, he said in a recent phone interview, by the “Psalm” movement of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.”

Dav­óne Tines, who also plays roles in both “The Comet” and “Poppea,” chimed in to agree with her request. Because he and Lamarre would be coming out of a tragic moment in the Lewis opera, he promised Lowenstein, “We will sell the hell out of the slower tempo because we literally will be weeping the whole time.”

Lowenstein consulted with Sharon, then indulged the singers. Everyone agreed that the transition clicked, with a new frisson. “The stories aren’t parallel,” Lowenstein said during a break. “But they rhyme a lot: You have the status quo that’s deeply unjust. And how do you navigate that?”

Navigating opera, whether traditional or cutting-edge, is nothing new for Sharon. He has even staged works by a classic composer like Wagner in both a Detroit parking garage and at the storied Bayreuth Festival.

In 2018, the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo approached Sharon about staging “Poppea.” But Sharon said he balked at the idea of doing “an opera about powerful people acting badly” during Donald J. Trump’s presidency. Then a light went on: If Shakespeare could be cut and reimagined for contemporary performance, he thought, why not Monteverdi?

Monteverdi, Sharon said, is “kind of encyclopedic in the same way that Shakespeare is,” and can survive, even thrive, with substantial cutting, pasting and recontextualizing that goes beyond solving riddles posed by the multiple editions of the score. He considered inserting work by Du Bois — an opera lover himself — and approached Lewis with the idea of setting Du Bois’s sociological nonfiction to music.

Why not Du Bois’s fiction, instead, Lewis countered.

From there, the idea of “The Comet/Poppea” gathered steam. It hit delays during the pandemic, but now its pieces are in place, including its idiosyncratic stage: To emphasize the vertiginous quality of the mashup, Sharon conceived a slowly rotating turntable, divided by a mirror that separates two discrete sets designed by the Tony Award-winner Mimi Lien.

At first glance, the mirror seems like a way to formally separate the stories: The Monteverdi half uses intricate decoration, including plaster-relief flowers; Du Bois’s 1920s milieu is rendered in Art Deco style. But Lien’s set also provides a hallway portal between those worlds — which, beyond a symbolic connection, allows for the easy movement of singers who travel between both halves of the production.

The pit musicians, coming from Baroque and contemporary backgrounds, will perform offstage. The audience will be seated on two sides of the turntable, seeing the same show but from different, rotating perspectives. In promotional materials for the show, Sharon has described this mutable frame as a gloss on Du Bois’s concept of “double consciousness,” saying that the show “begins as a critique of the institution of opera and ends as a justification of the art form’s radical potential.”

For his part, Costanzo said that “the connections that we draw, including in vocal colors, are fascinating.” He compared some soft, floating notes in his portrayal of Nero in “Poppea” with the final words his patriarchal character delivers to the Black protagonist of “The Comet.”

“The last thing he says is, if you ever want a job, ‘call’ — and that is, of course, a totally disingenuous line, as it’s staged,” Costanzo said. “I hand him a tip, a piece of money — basically, you know, exerting my white supremacy. And I sing ‘call’ with that same kind of eerie pianissimo that we hear in Nero’s world. And so I’m trying to find, through vocal colors, the connections rather than the differences.”

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