A Russian Revolution in Opera, Created by a Penn Composer

“Rasputin,” an opera composed by the University of Pennsylvania’s Jay Reise, was performed in Moscow last weekend, part of a celebration marking the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

The production also marked the opera’s 10th anniversary in repertory at Moscow’s Helikon Opera Company, directed by Dmitry Bertman. The performances, Nov. 11 and 12, were in the new Stravinsky Hall, conducted by Alexander Briger, founder and chief conductor of the Australian World Orchestra.

Reise, a professor of music in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences since 1980, was in Moscow to attend the rehearsals and performances.

“I am greatly honored that ‘Rasputin’ is being performed in Russia at this time of celebration,” said Reise. “The performances were splendid, and I was very gratified at how warmly they were received. I am extremely pleased at how the production has turned out.”

​​​​​​​Reise wrote both the music and libretto for “Rasputin,” which was commissioned and premiered by the New York City Opera and the late Beverly Sills in 1988. The opera was given its Russian premiere in Moscow in 2008 by Helikon, in Russian translation.

The central character, Grigori Rasputin, was a Russian mystic who befriended and gained what proved to be fatal influence over Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra as the revolution approached during World War I.

“My music tends to be on the dramatic side,” Reise said. “What I try to convey in the music of ‘Rasputin’ is the conflict between the conservative status quo that the imperial family represents, centered on the romantic-heroic key of E-flat major, and the cataclysmic change that was brought on with the advent of the 20th century, represented by atonal music.”

The Empress Alexandra’s aria in the second act was the first music he composed for "Rasputin," he said. “I wanted something lyrical, a big, dramatic number,” he said. “That’s the heart of opera to so many of us.”

Reise said he doesn’t know of any other American operas produced in Russia, and is gratified that “Rasputin” has had a 10-year run.

​​​​​​​While “Rasputin” is perhaps the most prominent of his many works, Reise has been composing throughout his long career. He arrived at Penn in 1973 to pursue his master’s degree in music composition, which he completed in 1975. After four years teaching at Hamilton College, he returned in 1980 to join Penn’s faculty.

Known for his courses on music composition and theory, he served as chair of the music department in 1993-96 and again in 2012-15.

As a composition professor, he said, “primarily I feel I am a mentor.” Students come in with material they have written. “It’s not quite like straight music theory, where you can teach certain techniques and obtain a guaranteed result.”

“We have discussions. I make suggestions. They react to my observations, or not, which is in itself a reaction,” he said. “In composition there’s no formula for success that you can impart to someone.”

Anna Weesner, the Dr. Robert Weiss Professor of Music and department chair, said that Reise, as much as anyone she knows, “knows musical repertoire inside and out.”

“He is so keenly aware of the traditions, so grounded in what I can only really call this deep love for music” she said. “And not just Western art music but also jazz, Indian music and more.” 

She said he has a special expertise in rhythmic techniques, some of which relate to Indian classical music.

“In addition to teaching composition more generally, Jay has taught many students through what we call ‘style studies’ that is, getting to the heart of a sound, or a style, by learning to effectively imitate it,” Weesner said.

Ultimately, Reise said, teaching composition involves students being independent.

“What they come up with that is successful, it is their own doing,” he said. “It’s the quality of the ideas. Then it’s about presenting those ideas well and especially with clarity.”

Reise said he believes that arts and culture are an indispensable part of the undergraduate curriculum. For 17 years he was the faculty director of what is now known as Rodin College House, where he was responsible for cultural and intellectual life. Attending live opera and theater performances was a main focus of event programming.

“It was a wonderful experience for me as well as for the students. For many, it was their first exposure to significant theater or opera,” he said. “Such encounters have lifelong impact. Arts and culture have a very important if not crucial role to play in life, no matter what major one declares or what profession one adopts.”

​​​​​​​Reise’s curriculum vitae lists 37 “selected works,” from “Symphony of Voices” in 1978 to “The Ghost of the Red Sea Swallow” for violin and piano in 2017. In between he has created music for myriad combinations of instruments including orchestras, wind ensembles, string quartets and piano solos.

Reise has written several pieces for theater. A modern ballet, “The Gift to Urashima Taro,” based on a Japanese fable, was premiered at the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival in Massachusetts in 2015 by Exit Dance.

David Yang, director of Penn’s Chamber Music Program, commissioned the composition and collaborated with Reise on the production, which featured 15 dancers. The music was scored for just four instruments: violin, viola, cello and shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese flute.

“It’s an incredibly beautiful piece,” said Yang, who played the viola part. “He’s wonderful at painting these very distinct colors, direct with the story.”

Over the years, Reise has received a number of awards, fellowships and residencies, including from the Guggenheim Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts. A dozen of his works have been recorded.

Now on sabbatical and living near Fairmount Park, he said he is “composing, composing and composing.” He has just completed a third piano sonata and is working on a new opera about the gangster Al Capone, starting, as he always does, with the principal arias.

Last month he traveled to India with his wife, visual artist Cecilia Paredes, where he continued his research on Hindustani vocal music. More travel is planned, including a return to Russia for performances next summer of his “Rasputin” in Tyumen, Siberia.

“You should go into music only if you have an overwhelming passion for it,” he said. “Music is an inner flame.”

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