Oratorio As Snapshots: Images From A Lifetime Framed In Words, Music


Polaroid photos taken by Jamie Livingston were projected during Luna Pearl Woolf and David Van Taylor’s ‘Number Our Days: A Photographic Oratorio.’ (Photos by Rebecca J. Michelson)

NEW YORK — Most of us take for granted our ability to snap — and immediately see — dozens or hundreds of photos a day. Anything that amuses us, shocks us, or just looks nice on our lunch plate becomes an image that can be shared across the globe. Composer Luna Pearl Woolf and librettist David Van Taylor’s Number Our Days: A Photographic Oratorio, seen at its world premiere April 12 at the Perelman Performing Arts Center (PAC NYC), harkens back to a time when each photograph was something more special and cherished.

This fascinating and unlikely project, spearheaded by Taylor, is a multifaceted analysis of a website — its background, its creation, and its impact. The site “Photo of the Day” was built by photographer Hugh Crawford as an outgrowth of a show at Bard College in 2007. The subject was the approximately 6,700 Polaroid photos taken — one per day — by Jamie Livingston between 1979 and his death, on his 41st birthday, in 1997.

It’s not that Livingston lived an extraordinary life. He found one moment each day worth preserving, and the mundanity of these blurry snapshots is weirdly moving. As the photos were projected on five screens behind the orchestra (multi-media design by Katherine Freer), Taylor’s libretto considered Livingston’s documented life in chapters, often from the point of view of people in the photos, whom Taylor had interviewed as source material.

The star among the soloists was soprano Elisse Albian, who played Livingston’s widow.

Framing each act is a “Knee Play” (the terminology an homage to Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, presumably) featuring countertenor John Holiday in the role of the Inventor of the Polaroid camera. Ironically, the Inventor chooses work over family (represented by his daughter, who is older in each appearance) in order to improve how photos capture life. The overarching concept is “Now” — as in not having to wait for photos but also paying attention to life as it happens. Holiday’s role required Baroque-style ornamentation and a suppleness that not many countertenors could pull off with such natural grace.

Within each act, 15 members of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street took turns as soloists, embodying roles as viewers or as subjects of Livingston’s photos. Woolf was the ideal composer because she is fluent in the language of many musical styles. She is also experienced in opera (previous works include Jacqueline, about cellist Jacqueline du Pré, with a libretto by Royce Vavrek, and Better Gods, about Hawaii’s Queen Lili’uokalani). The result in Number our Days was a distinctive sound for each of its many characters.

Bass Edmund Milly, who also showed off a fine falsetto, was The Hedonist, recalling days of partying and nudity (Milly wore only swimming trunks). Woolf used a slide whistle to emphasize the bawdy humor and had the chorus imitate its sound. As The Blogger (apparently representing Hugh Crawford, who put the photos online), tenor Nickolas Karageorgiou had alarming power when he and the chorus repeated the exhortation “Click…click” in staccato over an undulating orchestra. With a dark, warm voice, soprano Sonya Headlam was heartbreaking as The Caretaker, singing quiet lines against an introspective harp (Tomina Parvanova) while musing on the privilege of being allowed to share a dying person’s final days.

Sofia Aguirre sang the role of The Daughter 2 and countertenor John Holiday played the Inventor of the Polaroid camera.

The star among the TWS soloists was soprano Elisse Albian, who played Livingston’s widow. She recalls deciding to marry him when he was terminally ill (he died two weeks later) — how happy she felt. Later, with spidery melismas as fluid as water, she thinks of him as a “Tzadik,” a benevolent spirit who stays with her although he is gone.

When Act 3 began, I doubted the material could be stretched further. Woolf and Taylor made it worth our time. What started as an oratorio about Livingston was now about the basic human need for connection and meaning: Choir members sang testimonials about relating to particular photos, looking up their birth dates. Steven Hrycelak made us gasp as The Orphan, who came upon Livingston’s pictures by chance while in college and recognized a photo of his mother, who had died when he was eight.

The various roles were bolstered by casual costumes by Lux Haac and low-key stage direction by Ty Defoe that mainly facilitated flow on and off the stage in this complicated work. One production element that could have been handled better was the supertitles. Technically, there weren’t any, just a couple of open-caption machines at the front of the stage, which I doubt could be seen clearly by everyone.

The personnel included Novus NY, the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, Trinity Youth Chorus, and Downtown Voices.

Kamna Gupta conducted the 25-player Novus NY with a lithe, changeable touch that reflected switches from Britten-like density to jazzy humor or Stravinskian angularity. Only the movement called “The Designer” — featuring alto Devony Smith and finger-snapping choristers — hung limply despite its earnest attempt to be a cha-cha. The orchestra itself was outstanding, with special credit going to the contributions of oboist/English hornist Keve Wilson and principal percussionist Lisa Pegher.

Often the choir acted as a Greek chorus, commenting on the observations of the soloists. It was Gupta’s job to wrangle the ever-changing groups of singers, placed all over the venue. The personnel included the Choir of Trinity Wall Street (TWS co-produced the work), Trinity Youth Chorus, and Downtown Voices, totaling some 90 people. Overall, the vocal three-ring circus was kept well under control, but in Act 3 the bright acoustics of PAC NYC heightened the sibilants behind us, mercilessly exposing every tiny lag in entry of singers in the balcony.

Despite focusing on the pre-digital past, Taylor seemed determined to make his exegesis relevant for the nearly sold-out and remarkably young audience. The final Knee Play had countertenor Holiday inviting us to take out our phones (surely a first at a classical concert) and snap a photo of a neighbor while they thought about something they had “lost but still love.” Thready Wi-Fi service prevented many of us from projecting our photos onstage via a QR code, but it was still a touching experience as a simple tune about recognizing each day blossomed from the full orchestra and choirs, and we were invited to sing along. It will stay in the memory, with or without photographic proof.