Composer Nathan Hall Puts a Relevant Spin on Opera With Atlas of Remote Islands | Westword
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Composer Nathan Hall Puts a Relevant Spin on Opera With Atlas of Remote Islands

This operatic adventure takes you island hopping around the world.
Singers Meg Osaka and Jerome Sibulo of Opera on Tap ride the subway during rehearsals for Atlas of Remote Islands.
Singers Meg Osaka and Jerome Sibulo of Opera on Tap ride the subway during rehearsals for Atlas of Remote Islands. Courtesy of Nathan Hall
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For Denver-based composer Nathan Hall, creating a new work always begins with a clean slate, ready to be twisted into something unexpected by his far-out imagination. His latest work, an opera called Atlas of Remote Islands, is based on an illustrated traveler’s dream diary and map book of the same name by Judith Schalansky, originally published in 2009.

The opera, a collaboration with the singers of Opera on Tap Colorado and librettist Alan Olejniczak, premieres on Friday, May 5, and Saturday, May 6, for two performances at MCA Denver’s Holiday Theater.

Hall says the ideas in Atlas of Remote Islands, which he found in 2017 while browsing in an Aspen bookstore, differ completely from his last opera, a work about shibari bondage and finding one’s safe space in the queer community.

“This one is about geography and why we travel,” he explains. And Hall is more than familiar with the gifts of travel — both physical and psychological — thanks to residencies, fellowships and invitations that have taken him across the U.S. and overseas.

“It’s a really cool, weird book,” Hall says. “It’s about fifty real islands around the world: Familiar ones like Easter and Christmas…and ones you’ve never even heard of. It’s presented in a poetic way, telling stories about historical things — people who got shipwrecked, or islands covered only with birds — all these different mysteries. It had a drama to it that I thought should be in music.”

The book, he adds, is ready-made for any opera, but even more so, for the type of opera he’d most want to make. “I've got everything — murder, drama, lovelorn people — but luckily there are no tragic falls off a cliff," he says. "But I need realism and things based on reality, like rising seas, climate change and birds that became extinct. It’s also a chance for me to try to write something in a long form.”

In Schalansky’s book, “all fifty islands added to a narrative thread," Hall says. "You follow a character, ostensibly the author, and she does write in character.” Hall’s take is a little different and a little bit the same: “My narrator is more of a composite, but it started with me."

“There’s something amazing about traveling that lets me escape everyday life, and I want others to experience that, too — following an unknown journey where one might see characters at work, in the doldrums or squashed together on a subway car,” Hall continues. “And feeling happy to be home is nice, too, and that’s also in the opera. Travel can be disorienting, and it’s nice to feel grounded again.”
click to enlarge theater practice
Opera on Tap performers stage a bird-hunting scene for the Bear Island segment of Atlas of Remote Islands.
Courtesy of Nathan Hall
There was also the conundrum of finding the right performers for the job. But by coincidence, Hall explains, a patron of the Opera on Tap organization, which hosts informal, themed opera nights with professional operatic singers in bars, offered to commission an opera for the group.

OOT member Jerome Sibulo, who performed in Hall’s queer work, Unbound, suggested they talk to the composer. “By then, I had already started working on Atlas of Remote Islands,” Hall says. "But now I had an actual opera company to work with, and I was actually happy to compose an opera that’s more adjacent to the normal world.”

Each of the fifty-plus island segments in Hall’s opera last only about one to three minutes. Given the short time limit, “the whole product is less than two hours, and it zooms by at times,” he says. “To be understood in such a short time, you have to get the magic of theater involved — singers in costumes, the orchestration of a small ensemble, lighting effects, projections. We also have beautiful backgrounds from a friend’s family slide collection.”

Some of the resulting multimedia vignettes are impressionistic, while others are entirely something else. “Each island has its own atmosphere,” Hall notes. “Some feel tropical, some very cold and icy. The stories might be about nuclear war and spying, and some are just beautiful chorales. I even flexed my muscles and wrote sort of a Gilbert & Sullivan sea chantey.

“It’s still very me, and very accessible,” he continues. “Sometimes the singers have those songs stuck in their heads, and they’ll be saying, ‘I can’t stop singing one island!’”

Hall thinks the opera could have a long shelf life, partly because it’s modular. “Future shows could be very different than this — in a good way — since you could take out 25 favorite pieces, or choose only pieces about Antarctica or oceanography. It allows opera companies and singers the freedom of a mobile and flexible work," he explains.

“The fun would be how it’s reordered,” he adds. “Some might become more important by giving rise to matters of ecology or peace activism in the way you reorder them. ... It’s like shuffling a deck of cards. I like being taken along on an unexpected journey on a thread.”

Hall also appreciates the opportunity to make an atypical variation of opera. “I would love to show audiences how our ideas about opera are more than what we originally think of them — how they can be relevant and current, and talk about things unusual, scientific or about historical figures,” he explains. “This gave me a chance to work with voice in new way, and I’m always excited about that.”

That said, Hall isn’t necessarily ready to be known mainly as a composer of operas. He’s just as happy to have the capacity to move through different musical forms and settings. “Somebody shoot me if I decide to write another opera," he says. "It’s a lot of work, with so many people devoting time and energy. Maybe my next project could be a piece for solo snare drum, or something like that.”

Don’t underestimate those words as mere humor. Next time you hear of Nathan Hall, he might be riding the laurels of his first solo snare drum rhapsody.

Atlas of Remote Islands,  Friday, May 5, and Saturday, May 6, Holiday Theater, 2644 West 32nd Avenue. Learn more and purchase tickets at Eventbrite.
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