A Different Kind of Puppet Show

October 14, 2019
Erich Burnett
two puppets standing next to each other on stage
Photo credit: courtesy La Coperacha

Guest artists Zohn Collective and La Coperacha join forces for an artful mashup of music and puppetry.

If a performance of adventuresome new music—with puppets—sounds like a quintessentially Oberlin experience, there is good reason for that.

The Zohn Collective, a new music ensemble formed by composer Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon, will present Portals at Oberlin on Wednesday, October 16. The piece unites the forces of the collective’s musicians and the master artists of La Coperacha Puppet Company of Guadalajara, Mexico. And the Zohn Collective boasts extensive ties to Oberlin, including soprano Tony Arnold ’90 and flutist Molly Barth ’97. Its conductor is Timothy Weiss, a longtime professor of conducting in the conservatory and a driving force behind Oberlin-bred new music ensembles including Eighth Blackbird and International Contemporary Ensemble.

In 2018, the Zohn Collective’s recording Songtree was released on the Oberlin Music label, further bolstering the group’s ties to the school.

The performance will take place not in a traditional concert hall, but in the Main Space of Wilder Hall, Oberlin College’s historic student union, located at 135 West Lorain Street. Admission is free on a first-come, first-served basis, with doors opening at 7:30 p.m. for the 8 p.m. performance. Attendance will be capped at 100.

(The Zohn Collective and La Coperacha will join forces again in a performance of Portals at the Cleveland Museum of Art on Friday, October 19. Tickets to that show are $25, but admission is free for those who present a valid Oberlin ID.)

Portals consists of two distinct yet highly evocative works: Zohn-Muldoon’s scenic cantata Comala, which explores the search for identity and love inside ancestral memory, and the world premiere of Daniel Pesca’s Nocturnes, a setting of four poems by Irving Feldman.

Comala is based on Mexican author Juan Rulfo’s novel Pedro Páramo, which the composer considers among the most essential writings of the 20th century. Comala conveys a fractured narrative about a village in which the dead commune with the living; in Zohn-Muldoon’s interpretation, this is accomplished through speech among the living and by song among the dead.

composer Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon
photo by Hanna Hurwitz

“The idea behind this approach is that the living act under the pressure of time, seeking immediate communication, whereas the dead, free from the bonds of time, reflect endlessly in song,” Zohn-Muldoon (pictured) shares in his program notes.

Comala’s roots can be traced to a 2001 performance in Mexico City. A later version of it was recorded in 2010 for Bridge Records, and the piece was a Pulitzer finalist in 2011. Comala has continued to evolve in the years since; its current iteration was completed for this tour, which also includes an engagement in Chicago.

The Zohn Collective’s collaboration with La Coperacha—a 40-year-old troupe started by present-day member Antonio Camacho Oropeza—grew out of a shared performance at a 2018 festival in Guadalajara, where the collective’s music was paired with puppetry for the first time.

“A staging with puppetry had been my original conception when I first embarked on the composition of Comala, but for one reason or another, it had never come to be,” says Zohn-Muldoon. “We were all so pleased by the production and by the synergy between the two groups that we decided to bring the project to the U.S.A. However, we wanted to develop the idea of collaboration further. So, in conceiving Portals, we wanted to commission a new work that could be performed alongside Comala."

Nocturnes, by Zohn Collective member Pesca, probes the different ways perception is altered at night, and it draws from poems written throughout Feldman’s career, each one united by its use of nighttime imagery.

“I do not think of this work as dark in the sense of moody, disconsolate, or despairing,” writes Pesca, who admits that the hues inherent in the poems are mostly dark. “Rather, night in these poems is often rapturous, or enchanted, or an occasion to reflect upon our dearest memories.”

The overarching purpose of Portals, according to Zohn-Muldoon, is to build aesthetic and social bridges through artistic collaborations. “On one level, the artistic content of the project intertwines dualities such as life/afterlife, perception/memory, reality/fantasy, and love/hatred,” he writes. “On a broader level, our project seeks to highlight the interaction between literature, music, and puppetry, with the purpose of finding a balance between the unity of the whole and the independence of each art form.

“Lastly, we strive to take a community-based perspective, in which we reach diverse audiences through complementary performance and outreach activities with bicultural and bilingual content.”

Portals is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts and by the Eastman School of Music. La Coperacha’s participation is made possible with support from the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes.

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