Taking Up Serpents by WNO

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:

  1. 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?
  1. 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?
  1. What are we supposed to make of the last line, ” My God is dead. I am the light.”
  1. 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?

1 comment on “Taking Up Serpents by WNO”

  1. Robert Darling Reply

    Susan’s review celebrates many wonderful echos of this extraordinary performance—the moths wheeling around light— falling to the graveyard parking lot — light, lightning, the explosions of fireworks, they repel, draw us in, keep us swirling about in wonder. When the music began I was drawn as the moths circle into another world. Riveted by the storytelling, the metaphoric libretto’s poetry, the very aural beauty of the orchestration, the familiar yet strange world evoked by the drama, the spareness of the staging, all provided a very intense concentrated afternoon.

    Musically the orchestration ravishes. As noted at the beginning it sets the stage for an extraordinary event. When the characters search to catch snakes the whirling tubes from the orchestra pit are both visual and aural and weirdly effective.

    The review notes the opera’s completeness wanting only a few more moments at the father’s conversion. The moment happens so fast, it does seem to require more musical space to be fully realized. To me the opera also seems to want a soaring vocal line as Kayla breaks free at the finale — a commanding demanding lyric utterance — to thrill us after so tense an concentrated a time. She moves beyond her father’s conversion to embrace a new “light” coming from her new understanding.

    Pondering the afternoon, I thought of Salome or Electra, two unique works only slightly longer, both elicit intense musical emotion. It is epic, the creators touch on huge themes — the father sacrificing his own daughter — Agamemnon — he being sacrificed by his wife — Clytemnestra— the freedom pf the daughter “dancing” freed at last. These archetype characters fill our “head” space. We ponder again the moths being drawn to light. The space-time created is where music theater longs to revel.

    WNO must be congratulated for commissioning this work and presenting it simply and well. We look forward to many more productions. It is a powerful experience in music theater — we look for more companies to take it to the stage..

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