Performing Arts

‘Intelligent Systems’ winds up a 30-year journey at SoBe Arts

Carson Kievman is the composer-librettist of ‘Intelligent Systems,’ an opera getting its world premiere at SoBe Arts.
Carson Kievman is the composer-librettist of ‘Intelligent Systems,’ an opera getting its world premiere at SoBe Arts. Christopher Kievman

Composer Carson Kievman is remarkably relaxed for someone who is about to see his opera, which was 30 years in the making, come to fruition.

Kievman’s Intelligent Systems, commissioned by the prestigious Donaueschingen New Music Festival in 1982, will finally come to the stage at SoBe Arts this week, opening Friday night and running through June 14. Kievman discussed his work over a leisurely lunch at a Wynwood café, including why it was finally time to mount the ambitious production.

“I’m not sure this kind of thing’s been done anywhere, [at least] not the way we’re doing it,” Kievman said. “It’s an opera and a science adventure; it’s new music and it’s also a little bit of a Disney ride.”

He laughs as he tries to sum up the nature of his magnum opus.

The opera’s subject is no less than the lifetime of a planet, from birth through turmoil to the ultimate reconciliation between the planet and its inhabitants. For good measure, Kievman touches on environmental concerns including viral pandemics, sea-level rise, volcanic activity, killer drones and more along the way.

Such a cosmic canvas seems impossible to achieve in one evening, yet music director Mary Kauffman, who will conduct, says Kievman will pull it off.

“Carson has really done an amazing job in creating a beginning-of-life atmosphere in the orchestra,” she says of the first scene, called Acceleration. “The six singers act like a Greek chorus, with mostly textless, ethereal, very evocative melodies. The orchestral parts have series of different patterns in the various instruments, and somehow, they really do sound like elements and gasses.”

Two-thirds of Kievman’s opera was written decades ago, when he was a young composer. He calls his older style transformative, flowing in waves and climaxes, never standing still. The remaining music was completed over the years, and Kievman no longer has the “let loose” abandon of youth.

“I’ve simplified my voice to some degree,” he says. “For example, in the scene where you would normally expect all hell to break loose with the music, it’s the opposite. While the world is going to pieces, the music is much more plaintive and melancholy, not frenetic.”

Stage director Jeffrey Marc Buchman, whose in-your-face approach to Florida Grand Opera’s staging of Andy Vores’ No Exit last year in a South Beach bar garnered critical acclaim, plans to transform SoBe Arts’ Little Stage Theater into the interior of a spaceship. Buchman hopes to create a similarly immersive experience for Intelligent Systems based on the not-too-distant future of space tourism by seating the audience in the center of the stage surrounded by projections, with the singers acting as the crew.

“That’s the world that I’m going to create, to journey deeply into space to see the birth of a parallel universe and follow it through its life,” says Buchman. “When you think about such a long arc, there’s a lot of pressure to make it an experience for the audience and not something they just watch.

“For me, figuring out how we merge the physical world and the projection world will be essential, to layer what’s happening with the actors that are also reflected back in the projections.”

Because the audience will be seated in the middle of the space, only 50 seats are available for each performance, ensuring the intimacy Buchman is after.

Costumes matching the projections will allow singers to blend into the background when necessary, and even the orchestra, which will be behind the audience, will use costumes and props, reinforcing the 360-degree experience.

Kievman has been on the Miami scene for years, first serving as composer-in-residence with the Florida Philharmonic for seven years starting in 1987, and then returning to Miami in 2005 and founding SoBe Arts, a nonprofit arts, education and performance institute in South Beach.

Even 30 years ago, Kievman conceived Intelligent Systems as a multimedia event, considering technology and imagery as much a part of the work as the music.

“A lot of operas these days use media, and they call them ‘multimedia productions.’ This is not a multimedia production. It’s a multimedia opera in every way, and that’s why it couldn’t have been done originally. The technology just couldn’t support it. Back then, the images would either have had to be slides, which would be really boring, or prohibitively expensive 35mm film, which has no flexibility.”

Kievman’s vision of a totally integrated work is reflected in his atypical approach to the libretto.

“I created it as a storyboard with text, as opposed to a normal libretto, because there was no other way to do what I wanted,” he says, pulling out a phonebook-sized document of illustrations, detailing five epic scenes of planet formation, the birth of life, civilization and its aftermath.

To realize his concepts, Kievman is working with projection designer Alain Flores and the team of animators who created the critically acclaimed digital projections for Kievman’s Fairy Tales: Songs of the Dandelion Woman last season.

The majority of Intelligent Systems’ production team worked on Fairy Tales, and there is a trusting camaraderie among them about this new work. For Kievman, the biggest advantage is working with people who already understand his language and what he’s trying to create. For their part, the consensus among the team is that Kievman is a dream to work with, allowing each a chance to bring their own vision to the collaboration.

“Sometimes composers are very rigid,” Kauffman says. “It has to be exactly this way, and if you don’t have players who are capable of doing it, or if it’s not the best choice musically, then you’ll end up with a production that doesn’t sound very good. I think one of Carson’s strengths is that he is willing to change things if it turns out that they don’t work out.”

Buchman and his wife, choreographer Rosa Mercedes, are also taking the opportunity to experiment creatively with their own process. Normally they do most of the production planning and details of the choreography before they ever get into rehearsals.

Intelligent Systems asks us to go into the room and experiment, see what works and feels right, and most importantly what feels organic to the piece, and that makes it exciting,” Buchman says.

Kauffman says the multimedia approach is significant for the future of opera.

“I think for opera or any art form to remain viable, it has to have significance in the modern world. It has to capture the imagination of people who are used to looking at things on a screen and want to look at that extra component of either projections or electronically produced sound, and also who want to hear a message that’s not just the same old story,” she says.

Intelligent Systems is an excellent step in that direction: a non-traditional subject, and integration of elements that are more commonly associated with film or television.”

For complete coverage of classical music, go to SouthFloridaClassicalReview.com

If you go

What: ‘Intelligent Systems’ by Carson Kievman.

Where: Little Stage Theater @ SoBe Arts, 2100 Washington Ave., Miami Beach.

When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, through June 14 (Friday’s opening night is sold out).

Cost: $25 ($15 students and seniors).

Information: 305-674-9220 or www.sobearts.org/TICKETSIS1.html.

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