Don’t expect a happy ending with Schumann’s “Dichterliebe” — “A Poet’s Love.” But do expect to see bits of yourself as tenor Chris Carr sings through this 16-song cycle, debuting free of charge Thursday night on the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre’s YouTube channel. After that, it will move to the company’s website.
The recital is another chapter in the Opera Theatre’s Second Thursday virtual series, and this one aims straight for the heart.
Sung in German, it speaks the universal language of love and loss, set to the poetry of Heinrich Heine, written in 1822—23. English translations are provided during the performance, filmed in October inside and in the gardens of the historic Cedarmere mansion on Long Island, N.Y.
In a piece born of the Romantic period, Heine nevertheless added some less-than-romantic turns to his musings, which Schumann set to music in 1840.
“We’re still singing this piece 200 years later, and there’s a really great reason for that, because that emotional core has stayed the same.” said Carr, 32, who grew up on a farm near Quasqueton and now is based in Brooklyn, N.Y. “People still feel that pain. Once you reach adulthood, you unfortunately go through situations like that in your life.
“There’s a lot of relevance to people in that piece, and a lot of connections you can make with that poetry. It feels very realistic, because it’s not just one-dimensional. It’s not just, ‘I’m sad.’ It’s, ‘I’m sad, but I’m also this and this and this.’ It’s complicated. It’s deep like that.”
He likens it to capturing the various stages of grief — but it’s not all morose.
“In my mind, the through-line of that piece is the sort of general journey that a person goes through at the loss of love. That feeling of despair and loss and denial and anger and bittersweet joy and all that stuff,” Carr said. “It’s featured in every one of the pieces — sort of the five stages of grief that we talk about. It’s very clear to see the poet go through many of those different stages.
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“There are pieces where the poet is just expressing pain. There are others where he’s expressing jealously or bitterness. There are ones where he’s being very snarky and has a lot of attitude about, ‘Well, you didn’t want me — I’m just going to go on and be better.’
“But ultimately, the poet doesn’t ever come to terms of the loss. We meet this person in the throes of their loss and their sadness for losing that love,” Carr said. “And I don’t think we really ever get to the end. In the last piece, the poet is saying, ‘Take all my sadness and all of these terrible things and fill a giant coffin with it and have giants throw it into sea, because that’s the only thing that can contain how I feel.’ Doesn’t sound to me like me like someone who’s resolved and gotten over that loss or that hurt. It sounds very much like someone who’s still very deeply within that.
“It’s an interesting piece because there’s no real resolution,” Carr said. “This is just a picture of a person in pain and the emotional journey that goes with feeling that day in and day out. I think there’s a great relevance to that for so many people: You get dumped, you spend days just listening to music, with all different emotions being thrown around.
“It feels to me almost like the original breakup album — a way for the poet to express that pain in that artistic form, instead of just talking to his friends and having a drink.
“That’s really where that goes in my mind. I’m sure there are other people who have a different take on that,” Carr said. “That’s the beauty of it — you can have whatever meaning you want from it. For me, that feeling of expression of pain, expression of love — just the expression of very powerful emotions. That’s the central core of that piece and what makes it so incredibly fun to sing.”
Moving through pandemic
In a year where Carr’s live performances ended in February, he said he’s thrilled to be involved in a project that helps opera stretch into a new realm of presenting new and classical works online for wider audiences.
“The U.S. totally bungled handling this pandemic and I’ve lost my career, and thousands of other people are experiencing the same thing,” he said. “It’s devastating. It’s been a heartbreaking year for a lot of us. Many, many people have moved on from the industry completely. I thought about it myself many times, but I still love to do what I do. So (I have to) find my way back into it, adapt, improvise, overcome.
“Hopefully sooner or later, there will either be some sort of assistance to help with the thousands and thousands of people in the entertainment industry who are now out of work and out of careers. But in the meantime, we’ll just keep trying to make stuff happen and try to keep expressing ourselves.”
For Daniel Kleinknecht, the Opera Theatre’s founder and artistic director, playing piano for the piece takes him back to a composer he loves. He played Schumann’s music while studying piano, with happy memories of playing the composer’s short character pieces in high school and as a college freshman, playing the Schumann concerto with an orchestra.
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“I always liked it,” he said by phone from his apartment in New York, where he’s staying while his classes at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids are being conducted online. “I felt like the music fit the fingers well. ... I have this softness in my heart for his music.”
Kleinknecht, who also resides in Coralville, immediately thought of Carr for this performance of “Dichterliebe.” Carr has performed several times with the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre, including the role of Beppe in the 2017 production of “Pagliacci,” and earlier as the Sacristan in “Tosca.”
“Chris is a very thoughtful singer, and I thought this would be a really great pairing,” Kleinknecht said. “He’s just a superlative musician, and he cares for the text, thinks about the text and delivers the text beautifully. And it gave me the chance to do a song cycle I’d never learned before.”
In that process, he spoke with former Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre collaborator and pianist Tony Nickle, who had performed the Schumann cycle about 10 years prior.
“He said you have to make the audience cry in that last postlude or you haven’t really played it right,” Kleinknecht noted.
He also found the perfect place to play it right, in the Cedarmere estate. Once home to 19th century American poet and journalist William Cullen Bryant, Kleinknecht had visited the property a couple of times before. With Bryant being not only a poet but a contemporary of Schumann and Heine, it seemed fitting to film there, Kleinknecht said. Both he and Carr also remarked on the resonance of the wood-paneled room, reminiscent of the Great Hall at Brucemore, another 19th century mansion, in the heart of Cedar Rapids.
They went to great lengths to stay safe during the rehearsal and taping process, following pandemic protocols and taking multiple COVID tests. Joining them behind the cameras was Daniel Chamberlin, a Minnesota native now living in Brooklyn, N.Y. He also filmed Janara Kellerman’s Second Thursday performance, which launched the series in September.
“I just bow down at his talent,” Kleinknecht said.
“Because of the way that Danny has captured these things in a videography way that really has personality, I hope (viewers) feel a sense of mystery: ‘Where am I going? What is this?’ In fact, I think this is one of the best things we’ve ever done, and it has to do with way Danny has put this together,” Kleinknecht said. “He’s taken the poetry out and put it in English, and then we sing the song.”
Kleinknecht hopes audiences feel “an emotional connection to human sadness — and the way sadness can turn into something just as beautiful and juicy and glorious as these songs are.”
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If you watch
• What: Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre’s Second Thursday concert: Schumann’s “Dichterliebe,” featuring Chris Carr, tenor, and Daniel Kleinknecht, piano
• Cost: Free