Arts Listings

Arts: Musical Tranformations in New Opera ‘Chrysalis’

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Tuesday April 18, 2006

East Bay composer Clark Suprynowicz and San Francisco playwright John O’Keefe have joined forces for the new opera Chrysalis, “a hallucinatory riff on cosmetic surgery and genetic manipulation,” to be premiered by Berkeley Opera, April 22-30, at the Julia Morgan Theatre on College Avenue. 

Jonathan Khuner and Sara Jobin are musical directors for the production and Mark Streshinsky is in charge of stage direction and design. 

If a facelift for contemporary life and art seems a cogent a reading of O’Keefe’s libretto of driven cosmetics magnate Ellen Ermaine (mezzo-soprano Buffy Baggott, with soprano Marnie Breckenridge as Ellen’s doppelganger) and the “twilight zone” of her new ways of transforming the body, Clark Suprynowicz wryly concurs.  

“John’s written this piece about identity and image,” Suprynowicz said. “These are very topical themes, and reflect on the shifting nature of music in my lifetime, the incredible sea-change that’s taken place, the great eclecticism that’s become an integral part of ‘new classical music,’ of the idea people have when I say I’m composing.” 

Not wanting to substitute subtext for text, Suprynowicz reflected on the future of music in a world where “people can be renovated like a building ... What’s traditional in music that’s very recognizable, what you’ve heard before, is being juxtaposed, and presented together with new electronic and synthesized sounds, trying to make sense together with the traditional and the modern ... It’s two worlds in collision; people walking around as they were, and also unrecognizable, as others.” 

Suprynowicz doesn’t think in terms of genre when composing, and describes Chrysalis as a project in musical theater more than as opera in the traditional sense. 

“Not very long ago, the people in the conservatories thought tonality, the major chords were dead. Then others started using all that again; it was like tribal music,” he said. “Trends are hard to predict. Music will seem to settle in different genres, which is very convenient for commercial interests. And it’s easy to slip into composing that way, too, to fit in the right bin at Virgin that the customer’s used to going to. That’s like borrowing a suit of clothes. The composers we admire left a canon, developed strong identities. The only way I know to emulate what they did is to differentiate what I do from what we’re familiar with.” 

Suprynowicz has been composing for the stage for 20 years. Chrysalis is his fourth evening-length piece. His Caliban Dreams, an opera commissioned by the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, was performed two years ago at the Magic Theatre, and has been successfully staged outside the Bay Area. 

But he began his career as a jazz bassist, “a gun for hire, learning what I could about that craft,” he said. Moving to the Bay Area from New York in the early ‘80s, Suprynowicz made his living as a bassist, formed the Bay Area Composers Orchestra with Paul Nash, studied at the SF Conservatory—and at the same time got involved in theater with Rinde Eckhardt. 

“It satisfied a lot of what I wanted to be doing, to compose for a dramatic context, words and music,” he said. 

Suprynowicz thinks of Chrysalis ’ premiere as the lucky confluence of the various talents that have collaborated in its making. 

“John O’Keefe is the sort of playwright who’s parsimonious with words. There are spaces between the words in his plays that music could fill; he told me he feels he writes operatically. This is like Beckett, or Pinter—versus other fine playwrights like Shaw, or Tony Kushner, whose dialogue is dense in a way music wouldn’t suit so well.” 


Berkeley Opera presents Chrysalis at 8 p.m. April 22, at 7:30 p.m. April 26, at 8 p.m. April 28 and at 2 p.m. April 30 at the Julia Morgan Theatre, 2640 College Ave. $10-$40. For more information, call (925) 798-1300 or see