Tight-Rope


Tight-Rope, a chamber opera in nine uninterrupted scenes (1985)

The moment of truth comes quietly in Tight-Rope, the intensely moving new opera by composer Chester Biscardi and librettist Henry Butler. "I must live with my many selves," sings the Actor, who has spent the opera searching for the essence of poet Luther Dane, the man whose character he must portray in a film. "Lover, striving saint, drunken comrade, and above all the fool. Live until the fabric is worn thin, and can no longer safely hold my heart. Then, only then, will I know which of me will live or die." On the word "die," the orchestra is silent. A single spotlight illuminates the Actor and as his voice fades into silence the stage fades into darkness. Having finally accepted and embraced all that is the poet Luther Dane, the Actor now turns inward; his silence is inevitable, his quest complete (although another quest is beginning), and the opera over.

Commissioned by the University of Wisconsin in celebration of the ninetieth anniversary of its School of Music and the refurbishing of its historic Music Hall, Tight-Rope is a remarkably human account of a man's search for identity and the risk involved not only in the search, but in being true to the discovery. It received its first performances at UW October 5 and 6 [1985] in a production conducted by Karlos Moser and directed by Del Lewis with sets designed by John Ezell.

"We walk a tight-rope," declares the Actor to Luther Dane in the opera's opening scene. "One false step, one dishonest word, and we fall - we deserve to fall!" Dane (movingly sung by John Reardon) has arranged his "death," but lives on; he has returned to help the Actor discover who he truly is. The Actor (compellingly portrayed by Marcus Haddock) through a series of encounters with past and present lovers (Susan Powell and Adria Firestone), a manager (Ilona Kombrink), a television interviewer (Mimmi Fulmer), critics (John W. Webber and Samuel Jones), and a drinking partner (David Hottmann) - individuals who reveal the different and seemingly contradictory side of Dane's personality.

Biscardi sets the encounters by translating into sound the music already implicit in Butler's text. Words and melodic line are inseparable. Biscardi's elegant music is immediately accessible, at times even tuneful, although not tuneful in the manner of a Menotti, Floyd, or Bernstein. Rather than a tune implying a structure into which a text is fit, Biscardi's tunes are generated by the text, and as the text changes, the tune changes. The vocal lines are undergirded with a vivid instrumental score that illuminates the characters' inner motions. The Actor, as he attempts to reconcile the sides of Dane's personality, can be heard to think through the orchestra - as can Dane, reliving the anguish of his life.

In the silence and the darkness - indeed, throughout the entire ninety-minute opera - Biscardi and Butler also challenge the members of the audience to begin their own quiet journey to a part of themselves where their own separate identities - lover, striving saint, fool - can be embraced and accepted into the unity of a single personality, a personality of exciting, ever challenging diversity and limitless possibilities. - James Chute, Musical America (January 1986)


"No drum rolls nor brass fanfares announce the climax of Tight-Rope, the striking new opera by Chester Biscardi and Henry Butler. They have created an opera on a decidedly human scale. The elegant, vividly orchestrated music reinforces the characters' most human qualities. You are unable to forget the emotions that the music represents. Rather than dominating the text the music acts as an equal partner. The piece deserves performances by other companies. While it may not dazzle you, it will certainly move you. Through it you may discover something about yourself." - The Milwaukee Journal (1985)


"It was a hit all the way. Tight-Rope is relatively short — just 90 minutes — but long in psychological power. The Biscardi score is full of grace, a pleasure to listen to, both in the vocal line and in the orchestration that supports it." - Wisconsin State Journal (1985)

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