Sunday, September 25, 2016

"State of the Union" opera to feature Helsinki Chamber Choir Sept. 29 - Oct. 6

On their first U.S. tour, the Helsinki Chamber Choir will present State of the Union, a new opera by Eugene Birman and Scott Diel, in performances from Marquette to Houghton to New York City from Sept. 29 to Oct. 6. The opera will be performed at the Rozsa Center for the Performing Arts in Houghton at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 2. (Poster courtesy Rozsa Center)

HOUGHTON -- In their new work, State of the Union, an opera of economic inequality and obliviousness, composer Eugene Birman and librettist Scott Diel have turned their attention to everything that ails the planet.

Part opera seria, part satire, State of the Union is an opera for 12 singers which considers environmental sustainability, economic inequality, and the general obliviousness of society.

The 40-minute work will be premiered by the Helsinki Chamber Choir, which composer Jonathan Harvey has termed "probably the best choir anywhere in the world, particularly for contemporary music." The choir will be touring the United States for the first time.

Michigan Tech's Rozsa Center for the Performing Arts will present State of the Union at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016. State of the Union will tour the United States starting Sept. 29 and 30 in Marquette, with the final performance on Oct. 6 in New York City at Wall Street’s Trinity Church (see Schedule below).

An island off the Keweenaw Peninsula gave birth to State of the Union. Commissioned by the Rabbit Island Foundation, the work was conceived and composed on Michigan’s Rabbit Island, 91 acres of solid bedrock and forest that has never been developed, has no electricity or modern comforts, and is accessible only by small craft. Birman and Diel created the opera over a period of two weeks of seclusion on the island.

Librettist Scott Diel, left, and composer Eugene Birman are pictured here on Rabbit Island, where they created the opera State of the Union. (Photo © Andrew Ranville and courtesy Scott Diel)

Rabbit Island, located in Lake Superior three miles east of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, is held under a conservation easement granted by the Keweenaw Land Trust and supports programs fostering science, art, preservation and recreation. Rabbit Island is a laboratory for artists to consider the modern relationship between art and the environment, and this is what Birman and Diel have done.

View of Rabbit Island from Michigan Tech's Research Vessel Agassiz. (2014 Keweenaw Now photo) 

According to the Rabbit Island Foundation, "The opera condemns no one and everyone, yet its finale doles out redemption to those open to it. State of the Union is four characters -- the environment, the rich, the middle class, and the poor -- meeting and interacting over seven movements. It reflects a belief that many of our problems stem from how we view and treat one another. As a society we too often equate wealth with wisdom, and poverty with personal shortcomings. This work pushes forward the genre of classical music and also advances the medium to underscore a new subject: humanity’s relationship to its natural environment in the context of modern society."

The Koch brothers, Dick Cheney, Russell Brand’s Revolution, hedge fund tycoons, the middle class, the social safety net and those who depend on it: no one comes out unscathed.

The work has been brought to life thanks to generous support from the Rabbit Island Foundation, Northern Michigan University’s Northern Nights concert series, DeVos Art Museum, and the U.P. Beaumier Heritage Center.

State of the Union is the fourth work by Birman and Diel. Their first, Nostra Culpa, which dramatized the austerity-stimulus Twitter feud between economist Paul Krugman and Estonia President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, was quickly labeled the "Twitter opera" by the international press. It was featured by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, was the subject of a BBC documentary by Tanya Beckett, as well as covered in most every international newspaper.

Birman/Diel followed up with No. 289, an opera about the Russian border treaty of 1920 (Peace of Tartu), and a reworking of Erlkönig, both music and libretto, for the Oxford Lieder Festival.

The Helsinki Chamber Choir (Helsingin kamarikuoro) was founded in 1962 as the Finnish Radio Chamber Choir and assumed its current name in 2005. It is currently Finland’s only professional chamber choir.

The Helsinki Chamber Choir. (Photo courtesy Rozsa Center for the Performing Arts)

The choir’s Artistic Director from 2005–2007 was Kimmo Hakola. Since 2007 Nils Schweckendiek has been responsible for the group's artistic planning. While its wide-ranging repertoire includes music from the Renaissance to the present day, the Helsinki Chamber Choir is particularly highly regarded for its work with new music. The choir regularly commissions new works and has given over 50 world premieres in the seasons since 2005, as well as more than 30 Finnish first performances. The choir appears frequently at major Finnish music festivals and collaborates with orchestras and Baroque and contemporary music ensembles. Recent touring has included concerts in Russia, Estonia and Belgium.

Here is the Performance Schedule for State of the Union:

Sept. 29, 7:30 p.m. and Sept. 30, 7:30 p.m. -- Forest Roberts Theatre, Northern Michigan University campus, Marquette, Mich.

Oct. 1, 7:30 p.m. -- Interlochen Center for the Arts, Interlochen, Mich.

Oct. 2, 7:30 p.m. -- Rozsa Center, Michigan Technological University, Houghton, Mich.

Oct. 4, 7:30 p.m. -- Arts Center, Lake Superior State University, Sault Ste Marie, Mich.

Oct. 6, 6 p.m. -- Trinity Church, Wall Street, New York City

For more information or tickets for the Rozsa performance, contact Michigan Tech Ticketing Services at the Central Ticket Office (SDC), at 906-487-2073, or go online at

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