Composer Michelle Ekizian in front of a copy of Gorky's "The Artist and his Mother"

Michelle Ekizian Paints Emotional Portrait of Gorky in New Opera


By Corbett Charles McCarthy

NEW YORK — I believe the spirit of Arshile Gorky lives on, and that in this time of continued turmoil — whether it be of walls that divide or protect—what’s of most importance is common sense. Who knows what is in the minds of people on each side of a wall? When will the unending list of our modern times’ travesties including the Armenian Genocide of 1915, The Holocaust to the hate crimes going on today cease?

The work of the great 20th century artist Arshile Gorky and the trail blazing contemporary composer Michelle Ekizian sheds light on these persistent questions. The story of Ekizian’s new hybrid musical theater opera, “Gorky’s Dream Garden,” (now veering toward fully staged and concert symphonic premieres) is on the life of the Armenian-American artist, Arshile Gorky (b. 1904, Van, Turkey, d. 1948, Sherman, Conn.). The opera places its protagonist as a questing exiled heart. Through scenes of seeing, hearing and feeling, the audience becomes immersed in the starry conundrums

Judging from Saturday, January 5’s performance of an eight-minute segment of one of the “dream dances” from “Gorky’s Dream Garden,” one can sense that Ekizian’s work is brilliant. It crosses boundaries. Its unique blend of styles and techniques crosses high and popular culture featuring large-scale operatic forces. It is a spellbinding, uplifting psychodrama that breaks not only the fourth wall of the stage, but barriers among the audience members themselves. The drama spans the pre-and post-World War II-era of America featuring bachelor days of New York’s City’s dynamic bohemian art scene and married life in a modernist Glass House in a countryside idyll of rural Connecticut (where Gorky lived during his final years of his short life). But amidst the familiar Americana, there is inserted Gorky’s lost Armenian lands of his childhood: his place of beginnings stemming from the enduring beauty of Eden, Ararat and Noah — and also ironically, the site of the first genocide of the 20th century.

Dancer/director/choreographer Lynn Needle performing the dance of “The Exiled Heart” from “Gorky’s Dream Garden.”

“Gorky’s Dream Garden” shows Gorky voicing the truth (to right the wrong) through his artistic progress. Running alongside his life’s events (assimilation in newfound lands and marriage to a lovely American girl from Boston — offset by fire, loss, terminal cancer, marital infidelity, car accident and apparent suicide), Ekizian places escalating memories of the night time, enigmas and nostalgias of his lost Armenian lands with six of Gorky’s seminal art works to bring the creative vision full circle.

The dance of The Exiled Heart” of the Sorrowful Intermezzo: So be It, The Spirit is Forever from “Gorky’s Dream Garden,” opened Saturday’s five-hour Booking Dance Festival presented at Jazz of Lincoln Center’s Appel Room which highlighted the week’s 2019 conference of APAP (American Performing Arts Professionals). The segment featured solo dancer Lynn Needle (director and choreographer of Art of Motion Dancer Theatre). It was pure ecstasy. Needle singlehandedly entranced the audience with an incredible dramatic arc of emotion. Implying art in motion, the intensity and intricacy of the music and dance combined was remarkably in tune and in step with Gorky’s art. The collaboration imparted the visceral impact of Gorky’s fluid, biomorphic abstractions and his heartbreaking artist and his mother portraits.

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In New York’s venerable Jazz arena by its Glass Wall overlooking the evening’s city lights of the merging Columbus Circle at street level below, pure magic ensued. The music track’s opening sotto voce intoned by the outreaching pop voice of a soulful singer introduced the enthralling episode. With audio levels of the hall’s surround sound system set to emulate the feeling of being amidst the echo of a mighty international cathedral — or Mt. Ararat — Ekizian’s moving symphonic setting of the bedrock Our Father hymn of the ancient Armenian Liturgy enveloped the audience with sorrow and grace aiming to rise above.

With the melismatic chant song in ancient Armenian heard as a universal wail across the transitioning twilight to night sky outside, the music set the stage for Needle to appear from its depths of darkness. As the city’s cars, shops and people from all walks of life and ethnicities glistened through the Appel Room’s Glass Wall, the stunning backdrop appeared not as a barrier wall, but as a window to the world.

Knowing of the anticipated set design for the staged production of “Gorky’s Dream Garden,” I could not help thinking of Gorky’s Glass House in Sherman, Connecticut (where his life ended in 1948 at the age of 44) as an eerie tie-in to this grand perspective.

The gripping music with the magnificent Lynn Needle held center stage. It is an attribute to Ekizian’s and Needle’s mastery that the audience felt the emotional pull without knowing of the story line and the scene’s pivotal turning point. It did not matter that the audience did not know of the opera’s gender, boundary crossing avatar “The Black Monk” hailing from Anton Chekhov and the 10th-century Armenian Saint Gregory of Narek of Gorky’s ancestral lands cast to sing the Sorrowful Intermezzo as a Prayer for Peace. It did not matter that the presentation’s lighting did not flood the Appel Room stage in blood red light recalling the two defining opening and closing paintings for this scene which Ekizian has noted in her script to align with the themes of Genocide and loss (“Charred Beloved I,” 1946, of the David Geffen Collection and “Agony,” 1947, at MoMA). Was it planned or of profound coincidence that the performance’s blue lighting forecasted Ekizian’s script notes for the opera’s “Rainbow Dawn” Finale — posed to take place in the blue hour before sunrise? In any event, the segment was illuminating and transcendent.

The room was pin-drop quiet with all eyes and ears wide open as you felt the collective heartache and passion of an exiled heart aiming to rise above. Needle’s golden sheath gown and long garland suggested the scorching heat of the desert sand during the death marches, the genocide crawl of the faithful Armenians and the resilient leaves of the opera’s “wishing tree.” The 25-foot-long rustling garland of gilded leaves and “dream strips” in Needle’s hands was an amazing prop that spoke of reaching, tension, struggle and release. As the winter sky’s 5:30 p.m. twilight blue hour changed to the darkness of nighttime void, a growing ethereal blue lighting scheme surrounded Needle as she rose with the music. Her movements and poses seemed to be received by not just the seated audience in the Appel Room, but by the cosmos outside the Glass Wall/the Window to the World Beyond. It appeared as though the entire world was momentarily watching and listening together with compassion and hope—be it for our earth or fellow man of today and centuries past.

Ekizian is a composer creating hybrids of classical, rock, musical theater, opera and Armenian ethnic recasting in richly orchestrated, epic-like settings. For the Interfaith Committee of Remembrance at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, her commissioned Remembrance collection confronts issues of intolerance and survival in the perspective of the human spirit. She is a recipient of a Prix de Rome from the American Academy in Rome, Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Doctorate in Music Composition from Columbia University.

(Corbett Charles McCarthy is an art collector and owner of the Spring Lake Gallery in Spring Lake New Jersey specializing in 20th century art of which his collection includes works by Willem de Kooning, Jean-Michel Basquait/Francesco Clementi/Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Donald Judd, Kenny Scharf. Peter Max, Vaclav Vytlacil and Jim Gary. Recently he acquired 32-works found in a folder marked “A. Gorky” with one from Arshile Gorky’s commercial artist cousin John Hussian. The collection points to Gorky’s early student works and private studies (1921–1940’s). )


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