A few years back, after the release of The Dream Gallery – California composer and lyricist Mark Abel’s orchestral song cycle and debut recording for Delos – label Director Carol Rosenberger commented: “In Mark’s opera-like cycle, we meet realistic present-day characters who think, feel and express themselves freely and kaleidoscopically. His music ingeniously reflects every subtlety in emotional tone and impulse; it’s unique in my experience — and memorable.”
There’s no question that Abel has a particular affinity for programmatic vocal music. His two critically acclaimed previous releases on Delos revealed his fresh, sui generis approach to the art song. And now, with Home Is a Harbor, he gives us his remarkable first opera – a work that bears strong stylistic and thematic resemblances to his song cycles while making creative and confident use of the expanded scope afforded by the opera medium.
Steeped in the classics during his pan-global childhood and youth, Abel became a rock musician as a young man, and absorbed modern jazz along his path. Eventually, he became disenchanted with the limitations of rock, and – while pursuing a career in journalism – decided to become a composer of serious music. But, remaining true to the best qualities of his earlier in uences, he developed a stylistic meld that successfully combines elements of all three: the expressive depth of classical music, the in-your-face impact of rock, and the free-flowing and quasi-improvisatory nature of jazz.
Soprano Jamie Chamberlin, a standout performer at Long Beach Opera who has collaborated extensively with Abel in recent years, observes: “With Home Is a Harbor, Mark has solidified the complex fusion that has become his compositional signature. This unique sound is part of an emerging genre of vocal music that demands more than simply a beautiful voice. As a singer, it requires a blending of registers, vocal techniques, and most importantly, an emotional connection to the work.”
Abel pulls no punches in his lyrics, which frequently lay bare core aspects of personal and cultural behavior. His libretto for Harbor achieves this with a singular effectiveness – skillfully blending dramatic, comedic and contemplative elements. In many of his songs as well as this opera, he may present his scenarios and populate them in a Californian context, yet the issues they address are universal. Most of us will see ourselves – or people we know – reflected in the social milieus and situations he explores.
As the plot of Harbor unfolds, the young twin-sister heroines leave home hoping to apply their talents and abilities meaningfully. But as they pursue their personal goals along very different yet similarly thorny paths, the satisfying self-actualization they seek eludes them. Instead, they discover the pervasive shallowness and ethical conflicts of living and working in a society that often defines success in selfish and essentially immoral terms. But their home-bred consciences and essential decency win out in the end, as they abandon their respective ventures’ greed-driven realities in disgust and repair to their family roots, in search of missions that lend their lives the sorts of meaning and moral positivity they’ve been missing. And they find just that, in their mutual resolve to serve the desperate needs of their community’s homeless veterans: the victims of a brutal and misguided war.
This engrossing release also offers a new and memorable song cycle, The Palm Trees Are Restless, given a stunning performance by the Grammy-winning soprano Hila Plitmann. Palm Trees sets resonant and powerful verses of Los Angeles poet Kate Gale that strike different chords of human experience we can all respond to. While Home Is a Harbor is concerned primarily with the passage from youth to early adulthood, Palm Trees speaks movingly of a world where illusion has been driven from the stage altogether, leaving loss, yearning, bitterness and an ecstatic escapism in its wake. Abel’s music shifts accordingly, mirroring the often bleak – but starkly beautiful – internal spaces explored in Gale’s poetry.
New York music writer Grego Edwards called Abel’s previous CD, the song cycle collection Terrain of the Heart, “art song at a high-water mark of invention.” The same can surely be said of The Palm Trees Are Restless.