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Roland Burks, bassbaritone, and Nicole Tori, soprano, lead the Calling cast.

From smoke and rubble

By Pauline Oo

September 11, 2008

"Blue sky, blue sky...." These are the first words in the 9/11-inspired opera opening at LaMama, an experimental theatre club in New York City, tomorrow (September 12) and among the memories Douglas Geers has of 9/11. Geers, an associate professor of composition at the University of Minnesota's School of Music, is the man behind the 90-minute electroacoustics score featured in Calling: An Opera of Forgiveness.

"That morning [in Manhattan] was beautiful," says Geers, who was on his way to class at Columbia University when that first plane struck the World Trade Center. "It was one of those crisp autumn days that was filled with optimism and a sunny, blue sky."

Geers met Wickham Boyle, who conceived of the opera and is directing it, in 2005 when she hired his electronic improvisation band, Sonreel, for a gig at the New York Fashion Week. They got to know each other and decided to collaborate again. The project, this time, was more personal. Boyle wanted Geers' help in turning a book she had published into an opera. Calling, which runs through September 28, is based on A Mother's Essays from Ground Zero that was published in December 2001.

The opera blends drama, music, and choreography to capture the reactions and reflections of one family witnessing the attack on the World Trade Center at close range, and then the path they follow from chaos to recovery and hope. (In her essays, Boyle writes about living just blocks away from the twin towers and having her two children attend a school adjacent to the World Trade Towers.)

The cast is made up of 12 singers and seven musicians. The lead roles are played by Nicole Tori (mother), Roland Burks (father), Nique Haggerty (teen daughter), and Madison Pappas (young daughter). Hiroya Miura is the conductor. The chamber ensemble includes Geers and his wife, violinist Maja Cerar. Geers's instrument: a laptop computer, complete with a Wii Remote.

The Wii Remote, often called the "Wiimote," is the controller for Nintendo's Wii video game console. It resembles a TV remote control, but it has buttons and motion sensors--meaning you have to wave the controller at your TV screen to manipulate items in the video game. For the past year, Geers has experimented with tying his laptop, fitted with the latest electronic music software, to the Wiimote in hopes of making his performances more visual and kinetic. Typically, when electronic music is performed live, someone is hunched over in front of a computer pushing buttons to make pieces written for cellos and violins, for example, sound like Jimi Hendrix. "You don't know if they are checking e-mail or if they're actually playing music," says Geers.

What the audience at Calling will see, instead, "is me [sitting down in the back of the ensemble] with this white remote control in my hand and waving it around in the air," says Geers, a former classical guitarist. And what they'll hear is music that will tug at their heartstrings and that will seem to come from a larger group of musicians. Geers is not new to electroacoustic music, having combined electronics with acoustic music, or music from traditional instruments, for as long as he can remember.

What's in a name?

The opera's name, Calling, has references to many things, says Geers, "but one of them is that for many of the people who were there that day, it was about trying to reach out to people and communicate. There were people in the towers trying to call out; there were firefighters going in that were calling for each other; Maja and I were trying to call our families to tell them we were OK and safe...."

Over the last 18 months, segments of Calling have appeared at different music festivals. For example, the SPARK (February 2008), a popular weeklong electronic music festival that Geers created on the Twin Cities campus, and the Sonic Divergence in Illinois (April 2008). Segments were performed at the Cornelia Street Cafe (June and November 2007 and March 2008). La MaMa's presentation marks the first time the work will be shown in its entirety to the public.

"We wrote this to honor all the people who have experienced the tragic events of 9/11," says Geers. "It's not a piece that's meant to only be a memorial because we want it to be something that will move everybody and resonate with everybody, not just the people who were there in New York City that day. For instance, one of the secondary characters in the opera is a rescue worker, and a local Tribeca fire company has donated to the production a fireman's coat that was worn by one of their firemen during 9/11."

Watch a video of excerpts from Calling: An Opera of Forgiveness. Or listen to an audio clip. Tickets are $25 and available by calling 212-475-7710 or by visiting the theatre online. LaMaMa theater is located at 74A E. 4th St. in Manhattan.