Rehearsals with some of the crew, from left actress Adela Maria Bolet, composer Michelle Ekizian, leading man Brent Barrett, contralto Hasmik Mekenejian, pianist Ron Levy of Palisades Virtuosi.

‘Gorky’s Dream Garden’ to Hold Preview on September 7 at Newark Museum of Art

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NEW YORK — “Gorky’s Dream Garden” will be performed at the Newark Museum of Art in a site-specific Love Songs Showscape chamber preview on Saturday, September 7 at 2 p.m. (with a pre-concert spectacle at 1:30 p.m.). The exclusive 80-minute show will take place at the museum’s elegant Billy Johnson Theater and will be free with museum admission.

Created by award winning composer Michelle Ekizian, “Gorky’s Dream Garden” comes to life with a cast of performers from Broadway, opera, film and dance.

The opera is based loosely on the story of the visionary artist Arshile Gorky, whose Newark Airport Murals are a part of the Newark Museum’s collection.

Born Vostanig Adoian in Van, Turkey in 1904, the artist died in Connecticut in 1948. He was a child witness to the horrors of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. He came to America in 1920, and fabricated the persona of Russian royalty, and as a nephew of Maxim Gorky. Concealing his Armenian identity and his inner laments and hopes from all, except his sister through letter correspondences, he captured a young society, Bostonian wife and a slice of the American Dream. He became a founding father of New York’s dynamic abstract-expressionist art movement of the 1930s and 40s.

Despite loss and misfortune (fire, cancer, marital infidelity, car crash), and his untimely death at age 44, Gorky’s groundbreaking abstract and figurative paintings transitioned darkness and pain into color and light. His art is an everlasting representation of the enigmatic complexities of the Genocide survivors.

In this first-ever concert-event of the new musical theater opera “Gorky’s Dream Garden,” virtuoso musicians, dancers and actors will be enhanced by visuals crafted especially for its performance site.

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Gorky was assigned by the Federal Art Project to create his 1936–37 cycle of murals: Evolution of Forms Under Aerodynamic Limitations. Now, the cycle’s only two surviving panels—excavated and restored in 1978 after being presumably lost during some 35-years covered under coats of paint at the Newark Airport—are in permanent display at the Newark Museum.

Gorky’s murals are among the earliest abstract murals to be created in the United States. When the installation was previewed in 1937, the Newark Star-Ledger compared it to “a hangover after an Atlantic City convention.”

Vahakn Arslanian and Michele Ekizian by Gorky’s Aviation Murals at Newark Museum

Still standing tall today and rising above to greet the museum’s guests with fantastic verve, Gorky’s two Aviation Murals are ironically like the resilient survivors of the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

Ekizian, who composed the book, score and lyrics, creates hybrids of large-scale works crossing the boundaries of classical, rock, musical theater and opera.

Created in sections over a course of two-decades, “Gorky’s Dream Garden” has been hailed as “a blaze of color…passion and spiritual force… (San Francisco Chronicle on previewed excerpt).

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.

For the September 7 preview, Ekizian and her team have staged a portable production that will make full use of not only the post-modern architecture of the museum’s Billy Johnson Theater designed by the late Michael Graves, but its gallery space by Gorky’s murals.

Conceived as a spectacle of sight and sound, the presentation includes a pre-concert dance ritual, tableaux vivants, a procession of light and a pop-up “wishing-tree” installation conjuring East/West – ancient/modern, immigration, otherness, innovation, resilience and endurance.

The internationally represented visual artist Vahakn Arslanian has created the show’s panoply of indigenous birds harkening from Gorky’s lost Armenian lands for the production’s projections and its pop-up interactive “wishing tree.” His collaboration with Julian Schnabel, “The Ones You Didn’t Write – The Maybach Car,” was displayed on the Grand Canal during the Venice Biennale.

Deaf from birth, Arslanian is fascinated by aviation, birds, candle flames and the chaotic beauty of shattered glass. Through these miracles symbolizing some of life’s essential promises of hope, Arslanian, like the artist Gorky in his overcoming the immediate trauma of the Genocide, found in his art both a route for his imaginative vision and a means of exploring the equilibrium between destruction and creation.

In keeping with Ekizian’s layering of real, unreal and surreal through her opulent music score and fast paced time traveling story line, the Dream Garden’s visuals are multifaceted. Throughout, panoramic backdrops guided by Arslanian’s birds in flight offer vistas to fragmented and montaged abstraction and nature captured respectively by Corbett McCarthy and Armenia’s foremost photo-journalist of its evocative landscapes, Hrair Hawk Khatcherian. McCarthy, a Spring Lake, New Jersey art collector and gallery owner, has recently acquired a collection of lost works pointing to Gorky’s early and private art suggestive of his exile flight to America and assimilation that is now under critical examination among the art world. For the opera’s turning point scene, a riveting Dream Dance will be accompanied with the screening of the composer’s private music video educating on the Armenian Genocide featuring the voice of the late Woodstock/”Freedom” legend, Richie Havens in the opera’s role of its enigmatic Black Monk. Here, Ekizian’s setting for the singer’s raspy wail in her orchestration of a sublime ancient Armenian spiritual hymn is set against devastating flames and brutal historic photos of the Genocide’s death marches into the desert as a timeless and worldly plea to rise above.

Lynn Needle, dancer, director, choreographer of The Art of Motion Dance Theatre

Brent Barrett, the venerable Broadway leading man, performs the role of Gorky. The actor and bari-tenor is the winner of the Los Angeles Music Critics Award, and a frequent star in international and Broadway productions of “Phantom of the Opera,” “Chicago” and “Kiss Me Kate” as well as in musicals and in concerts with theaters, symphony orchestras, opera houses, and concert halls around the world. He is the lead of the popular “Broadway Tenors.”

Joining Barrett, the line-up of performers includes Hasmik Mekenejian, the Yerevan born contralto and principal soloist of the St. Vartan’s Armenian Cathedral Choir in New York City as Gorky’s martyred mother, Shushan. Soprano Karen Lubeck as Gorky’s American ingenue wife, Agnes, attracts attention as a promising artist with a beautiful voice, intelligent musicianship, and thoughtful interpretation and made her Carnegie Hall debut sharing the stage with trumpeter Arturo Sandoval.

Actors performing in quick-cutting voice overs as the show’s “Art Whisperers” in tandem with Ekizian’s luscious score will include Adela Maria Bolet, also doubling as the artist’s eccentric sister, Vartoosh). The Cuban-born actor of film, TV and theatre and winner of the Best Actress Latin America Theater Festival and Revelacion ACE Entertainment Critics Association Awards. Bolet will be joined by John Sannuto, New York theater veteran singer, dancer, director, and choreographer and Professor of Theatre and the Chair of the Performing Arts Department at Long Island University´s Brooklyn Campus.

The Art of Motion Dance Theatre, directed by dancer/choreographer Lynn Needle, will cover the show’s extensive dance sections portraying the physical and mental “fantasy of flight” evoked by Gorky’s Aviation. Needle, a disciple of the legendary American choreographer Alwin Nikolais, performed last winter to critical acclaim the dance of “The Exiled Heart” from the Gorky Opera on the celebrated Appel Room stage at Jazz at Lincoln Center before the Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) through the JKA Booking Dance Festival.

With her dance captain, Janette Dishuk, Needle and Dishuk — both on the dance faculty of Bergen Community College — will be joined by a trio of cutting-edge male dancers who are as well, equally at home in classical ballet, modern dance, hip-hop and Broadway. Needle’s and Dishuk’s portrayal of female icons representing “Mother Armenia” and “Holy Breath” of Ekizian’s script will be joined by the men performing the opera’s intriguing Chekovian “Black Monk” (Michael Crawford), “The Artist as a Young Man” (Marcos Valasquez) and a cross-over, transgender “World” deity (M.A. Taylor).

The Palisades Virtuosi will function as the Dream Garden Lite Orchestra of piano, alto flute and clarinet. A mainstay on New Jersey’s cultural landscape and beyond, the ensemble featuring pianist Ron Levy, flutist Margaret Swinchoski and clarinetist Don Morkrynski has been hailed by Fanfare Magazine: “In terms of intonation, articulation, and musical insight, Palisades Virtuosi represent the best of our current world-class standards.”

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