Born in Kentucky at the beginning of the 20th century, Harlan Hubbard might have been accused by some of his contemporaries of living in the past, but he was actually way ahead of his time: purposefully getting “off the grid” long before that term came into popular use. He moved to New York City, studied art at the National Academy of Design and later at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, but then turned his back on industrialization and consumer society. In 1944, Harlan and his wife Anna hand-built a shantyboat in Kentucky and spent the next eight years sailing down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans, living on the boat all the while.
In 1951, the Hubbards returned to Kentucky and built their own permanent home on the banks of the Ohio in a place called Payne Hollow, with no electricity, subsisting on food that they grew themselves, fished or foraged. Their self-sufficient existence, chronicled in books and journals, along with Harlan Hubbard’s art, inspired an eminent fellow Kentuckian – poet, essayist and environmental activist Wendell Berry – to write extensively about the pioneering couple.
Among Berry’s tributes to the Hubbards was Sonata at Payne Hollow (2001), a short play in verse. Embellished with ghosts, it has now become the basis for the libretto of a new opera by Shawn Jaeger. A fellow Kentuckian, the young composer is a faculty member at Bard College. Jaeger, whose music often draws inspiration from Appalachian ballad singing and the 17th-century “lining-out” tradition preserved in Old Regular Baptist hymnody, describes the atmosphere that he wanted to capture in Payne Hollow as “quiet and mysterious.” The chamber opera will have its world premiere this weekend at Bard’s Fisher Center, performed by the Bard College Conservatory of Music’s Graduate Vocal Arts Program under the baton of Carl Christian Bettendorf.
Also on the program, and complementing Payne Hollow’s ectoplasmic elements, will be Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, conducted by James Bagwell. The 1954 opera is based on the tantalizingly ambiguous 1898 novella by Henry James about a newly hired governess at a country estate that may or may not be haunted by the apparitions of two deceased former employees who may or may not have molested the two children in her charge. Is she delusional, or are the ghosts real? James isn’t telling, and literary critics and psychologists have consequently had a field day with the eerie story ever since. Britten’s musical interpretation, with the composer’s characteristic blend of tonality and dissonance, remains one of his most popular works to this day, and his most frequently performed opera after Peter Grimes.
The two chamber operas will be sung by sopranos Angela Aida Carducci, Elizabeth Cohen, Lucy Fitz Gibbon, Helen Zhibing Huang, Kameryn Lueng, Devony Smith, Laura Soto-Bayomi and Sarah Tuttle; mezzo-sopranos Katherine Maysek and Sara LeMesh; Vincent Festa, tenor; and Jeremy Hirsch and Michael Hofmann, baritones – all backed by the Bard Conservatory Orchestra. Nicholas Muni serves as stage director and production designer for this program, which will be performed twice in the Sosnoff Theater of the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts on the Bard campus: this Friday, March 14, at 7 p.m. and this Sunday, March 16, at 2 p.m.
Tickets go for $15, $25, $35 and $100, with the latter price entitling you to priority seating, an invitation to a special champagne reception on Sunday and a $75 charitable tax deduction. All ticket sales benefit the Conservatory’s scholarship fund. To purchase tickets, call the Fisher Center box office at (845) 758-7900 or visit www.fishercenter.bard.edu.
Bard Conservatory performs Jaeger’s Payne Hollow & Britten’s Turn of the Screw, Friday, March 14, 7 p.m., Sunday, March 16, 2 p.m., $100/$35/$25/$15, Sosnoff Theater, Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson; (845) 758-7900, www.fishercenter.bard.edu.