Our first Live & About Outing of the 2019 Winter/Spring season was to WNO’s premiere of Taking Up Serpents by American composer Kamala Sankaram and librettist Jerre Dye – a story of 25-year-old Kayla, the estranged daughter of a fire-and-brimstone preacher who is dangerously bitten by one of his own snakes. Kayla’s journey home forces her to confront her troubled upbringing.
Dye pulls from his own experiences growing up in the Deep South to explore themes of faith, family, and the patriarchy through the lens of snake-handling practices. Sankaram’s distinctive and eclectic compositional style paints a vivid picture of this highly-charged world by adding contemporary instruments—acoustic and electric guitars and drum kit—to the orchestra pit.
Susan leads off in her review of Taking Up Serpents in DCTheatre Scene with the following:
“Despite the almost universal cry currently from the lips of Washingtonians who ask for cultural fare that will help them hear and perhaps understand some authentic if unfamiliar (and at times unfathomable) voices from beyond the beltway, most programming, let’s be honest, is preaching to the choir.
Enter composer Kamala Sankaram and librettist Jerre Dye who have delivered up a story about Pentecostals in the Appalachian South and – stranger still to most of our metropolitan dwellers – snake handlers. They have done this creating a chamber opera as strong and inventive musically as it is emotionally compelling.”
Whether or not you agree with her assessment, would you consider and weigh in on the following questions:
- The music of Kamala Sankaram is eclectic –not imitating but drawing influences of popular and traditional musical traditions. Did the music forward and enrich the story?
- Librettist Jerre Dye wanted to write about Pentecostal faith people. How did his three characters help you understand this way of life, and did you connect at times with their longings and struggles?
- What are we supposed to make of the last line, ” My God is dead. I am the light.”
- Did you feel there were choices in the staging and in the work itself of this first iteration that seemed to be holes and could be further expanded or clarified?