Bold. Brave. Brilliant.

A Special Message from Composer, Daron Hagen, on Shining Brow

Ellen Hinkle – September 9, 2019

In Shining Brow, Daron Hagen has created a riveting McDougall RED Series production that feels as though it was ripped from the headlines of the past. Before you experience this "not to be believed" true story, get an insiders look at Shining Brow straight from the composer himself. Below, composer Daron Hagen explains his thoughts on the piece as well as what drove him to this specific story. 

"I was an ambitious, selfish 29-year-old in a hurry when, in 1990, I began composing Shining Brow with the great Irish poet Paul Muldoon.

Not interested in creating a bio-pic, executing a take-down, or confecting a costume drama, we were, as artists in our 20s, taken with that early portion of Wright’s long career when his very public personal struggle between self-actuation and social responsibility appeared most acute. Undoubtedly, the famous love triangle with the Cheneys, his personal, professional, and artistic falling out with his mentor Louis Sullivan, and the catastrophic murders and conflagration at Taliesin were, seen from the safe vantage point of nearly a century, ripe for operatic treatment.

Importantly, we created operatic characters freely based on actual historical figures. As they must, these operatic characters took on a life of their own. Anyone craving reportage will have to look elsewhere, I’m afraid.

The character of Wright, the center of the social upheaval his selfish treatment of others creates, is nearly unworthy of love as a man at the opera’s start; by the end, hubris has been for the moment curbed, he is worthy of our compassion, if not pity, and he may (or may not) be poised to launch into the greatest work of his career. Mamah Cheney’s feminism is inspiring; the bravery of her move to Berlin despite the bonds of motherhood and marriage to Edwin is heroic. That her personal transit appears to be that she ends up as “a codicil to Wright’s iron will” is more than tragic; she is too intelligent and self-aware to be simply a victim.

Her husband Edwin and Wright’s wife Catherine are simply good people; they seem to live their upper-class midwestern bourgeois lives at a safer, slower pace than Mamah and Frank do. One senses that their narratives, however moving, will go on—children will be raised, mortgages paid, social norms will in time reassert themselves.

Functioning somehow above his relationship with even Mamah is Wright’s struggle to come to grips with his mentor and progenitor, Louis Sullivan. Wright would like to think he’s searching for rapprochement, but in fact he cannot resist the reflexive urge to overcome Sullivan. Portrayed as an introverted alcoholic, Sullivan is the opposite of his exuberantly outgoing protégé. Wright’s dignity derives from his understanding, deep down, that he doesn’t “get” Sullivan, but knows that he has to keep trying.

There is a Maid whose deus ex machina role as a Fury signals that we’ve gone over to a deeper, darker poetic reality, one in which we’re compelled to deal with the terrifying work of the Chef.

Standing resolutely aside from any dialectic about gender roles, race, class, and social responsibility is a blurry “essence quorum of souls’ intensities” (paraphrasing Allan Gurganus) that we give shape to in the character of the Chef. It would be too easy to describe his behavior as a karmic manifestation of “what is wrong” at Taliesin; he’s not an anti-hero, he’s a man who has become untethered entirely from the framework. There he stands, uttering (he doesn’t sing; he mustn’t sing) a terrifying manifesto cobbled together from garbled fragments of Amergin and a dozen other cries of pain.

Thirty years later, I identify with Edwin Cheney and his “little potsherd” rather than Wright and his “Promethean boulder.” In the event that I was asked to compose Shining Brow now, I’d create a very different narrative, but the central argument about the secular humanistic struggle between art and life would remain, because it grapples with the human existential questions—what role does faith play, and what is faith in our time? Mr. Wright struggled with them, as we do today."

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