Oakland East Bay Symphony will premiere an unusual commissioned work by San Francisco composer Nathaniel Stookey, Zipperz, with a libretto by Dan Harder, also of San Francisco, to be sung by Berkeley-native Eisa Davis and Manoel Felciano, both recently featured on Broadway in New York, at the opening night of the Symphony’s 20th anniversary season, this Friday at 8 p.m. at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland.
Zipperz, which is described as “a soap opera, with the passion of opera and the sizzle of pop,” will be preceded by George Antheil’s Jazz Symphony and followed by suites from Romeo and Juliet by Serge Prokofiev.
Michael Morgan, OEBS musical director, who will conduct, commented on how the unusual show came together: “We did a piece by Nat Stookey three or four years ago, and had been talking about something else. It was his idea, from Dan Harder’s poetry, and he recommended Manoel and Eisa to sing it. I added the Prokofiev—Romeo and Juliet seemed logical, following a love story—before I knew his piece would need the intermission in the middle! It has two acts. I added the Antheil piece at the beginning. It’s only eight or nine minutes; I thought it would be fun, used as an overture for the evening—a wacky, coked-out midcentury jazz piece. I came upon it at some point, researching jazz-influenced pieces for the concert hall, something not so easy to find! And of course, Antheil’s reputation as an iconoclast makes it even more attractive to do.”
(Antheil, a prolific composer, dubbed “The Bad Boy of Music,” was an Ernest Bloch piano student in New York, composed ç in 1925, the year after his notorious score for painter Fernand Leger’s film, Ballet Mechanique, featuring an aeroplane propeller onstage. Supporters included Satie, Stravinsky, poet Ezra Pound and artist Man Ray. In 1936, he became a Hollywood composer, best-known for the theme for Walter Cronkite’s later, long-running CBS TV Sunday news-show The 20th Century. He also invented frequency skipping transmission and torpedo guidance systems with actress Hedy Lamarr. His legacy includes students Henry Brant and Benjamin Lees and influence on diverse musicians, including Frank Zappa.)
Responding to a joking remark that such a program would’ve been relegated to “Pops” status 20 years ago, Morgan replied “what would constitute a Pops concert in a city as diverse as Oakland? We do a lot of crossover types of things. We want composers who can engage the audience, then let them go where they want to go. That’s why so far we’ve never done a Pops series. We cover a pretty wide range of genres—and even the Prokofiev is popular!”
Nathaniel Stookey, who at 17 was the youngest composer ever commissioned for the San Francisco Symphony’s New and Unusual Music Series in 1987, also talked about the genesis of his piece: “The impetus was Dan Harder sending to me a collection of poetry in which he uses a form he calls ‘zipperz,’ where the poems printed on left and right pages opposite each other can be read independently or alternating lines across both poems, becoming more than the sum of the parts. It reminded me of counterpoint in composition. Because the language is so important, I didn’t want to use supertitles. Originally, I thought of using opera singers. Then I went to see Manoel, who like Dan is an old friend, sing in Sweeney Todd on Broadway and his own songs in a weekend of pop shows. From that point, I wrote the piece for him, and for Eisa, who he suggested.”
Asked about the theme, Stookey said, “I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but with such a compelling title, it’s pretty hard to imagine it without the removal of clothing! It does involve a certain amount of that—and something happens, an important piece of action in the relationship, offstage between acts, which they have to deal with when they come back on, all I’ll tell you about it is it has to do with zippers! But zippers are also a metaphor for how people mesh. And I think the most shocking thing for the audience won’t be the subject matter, but listening to pop singers singing pop music in counterpoint with an orchestra. It’s part opera, part pop, part daytime TV.”
Commenting on working with OEBS, Stookey said, “Michael Morgan’s special. He likes to take risks—and the Symphony putting its neck out for a big, unorthodox 40-minute piece like this, with Broadway and pop singers as a season opener, that’s valuable for a composer. Few orchestras in this country would go for such an unknown quantity. Everything else I’ve done for orchestra is very different from this. Michael likes to have something popular alongside something classical, knowing people don’t listen to just one kind of music. Michael’s vibe with the orchestra is great, too. They’re allies, not opponents. If that relationship is adversarial, the composer ends up siding with the conductor. If the conductor can’t sell the music to his own band, the composer’s left out to dry!”
Eisa Davis remarked, “As always, it’s so good to be home, and so good to be onstage in a classical music environment. Most of what I’ve done is pop or in musicals, but I started performing as a classical pianist. This will make my teachers happy! I’ve sung with Mano before and just realized he’s playing violin on my record. It’s fun to perform with friends; you can go a lot further.”
Davis, a Berkeley High and UC Young Musicians Program graduate, had her Pulitzer Prize-nominated play Bulrusher produced at Shotgun Players last year, just months after she performed in the musical Passing Strange at Berkeley Rep, which went on to win Tony Awards (and an Obie for Eisa) for its New York run. She sings on the original cast album, and will be seen in the upcoming Spike Lee-directed film version. Her other plays include Angela’s Mix Tapes, inspired by her aunt, Angela Davis. She has also recorded her own songs on CD, like her debut album Something Else.
Manoel Felciano was nominated for a Tony Award in 2006 for his portrayal of Tobias Ragg in Sweeney Todd and has been performing in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll at ACT in San Francisco. His debut album of original songs, Moonshot, was released in 2007.
Presented by Oakland East Bay Symphony
at 8 p.m. Friday at the Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, Oakland. $20-65. 444-0801. oebs.org.