Frost Amphitheater

By Thomas May

After nearly a year of postponement, Stanford Live prepares to present the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale‘s collaboration with the American Modern Opera Company. The No One’s Rose, a project created in a moment of prevailing uncertainty about the identity of art, uses the poetry of Holocaust survivor Paul Celan as a framework to reflect on creating art as a community in the face of overwhelming loss and despair.

Talk about prophetic: even before the pandemic began to wreak its havoc, the creators of The No One’s Rose were envisioning an artistic “meditation on loss and recovery”— to quote the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s season brochure published in January 2020, a date perilously close to the start of lockdowns related to COVID-19. As we look back on announcements of projects from that time, they seem to signal the end of an era that now seems as irretrievably lost as Eurydice after Orpheus’s fateful glance backward.

Eurydice, as fate would have it, was the last major project that composer Matthew Aucoin—who wrote new music for The No One’s Rose—would see realized before the COVID-19 outbreak. An opera based on the play by Sarah Ruhl, Eurydice premiered at the Los Angeles Opera in a production that closed near the end of February 2020.

Eurydice exists within the recognizable framework of opera. The No One’s Rose, by contrast, is an undefinable hybrid of music, poetry, theater, and dance. Because of the experimental nature of the piece, a workshop was planned to take place at Juilliard in March 2020 to pave the way for the world premiere at Bing Concert Hall in October of that year. But that was the first of many postponements. At last, The No One’s Rose—created as a partnership between Stanford Live, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorus (PBO), and the American Modern Opera Company (AMOC)—will be unveiled at Stanford Live. AMOC’s ensemble of artists will include singers (soprano Julia Bullock, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, tenor Paul Appleby, and bass-baritone Davóne Tines), dancers (Bobbi Jene Smith, Zack Winokur, Or Schraiber, and Julia Eichten), and instrumentalists (violinist Keir GoGwilt, cellist Coleman Itzkoff, and percussionist Jonny Allen).

Choreographer and dancer Bobbi Jene Smith and dancer Or Schraiber star in The No One‘s Rose. Photo by Carlos Cardona   

So what do you do when your show exploring loss and uncertainty becomes subject to an unprecedented situation of loss and uncertainty? “The fact of the pandemic forced us to completely reimagine it,” says Aucoin. “It felt like we couldn’t do the thing we were planning on but had to take into account what we are not just as artists but as people.”

Speaking from his home in Maine during the spring of 2021, Aucoin outlined the complicated genesis of a project that has become the most ambitious undertaking yet by AMOC, the company he cofounded with stage director, choreographer, and dancer Zack Winokur: “The No One’s Rose has evolved into a kind of Canterbury Tales of the pandemic. It delves into the life experiences of the individual performers, musicalizing and theatricalizing them—telling people’s stories in a time of displacement and floating and uncertainty, with Paul Celan as our guide. He’s the master of uncertainty and displacement.”

“I don’t want to frame this piece as being ‘about’ the pandemic,” remarks Winokur regarding his concept for the staging. “But it is in many ways personal to everyone involved in terms of what we have lost, what we have gained, and how we move forward. Celan did that in a very different context. So we look to him as a guide as we figure out how to move out of isolation as a society.”

[The No One's Rose] delves into the life experiences of the individual performers, musicalizing and theatricalizing them—telling people’s stories in a time of displacement and floating and uncertainty, with Paul Celan as our guide. He’s the master of uncertainty and displacement.

Bobbi Jene Smith, who is choreographing the production, explains that her role is not “to put a dance on top of everything” but to make the performers “listen more to what they are already doing and explore how to play with the volumes of that. Movement itself is dance—we dance all the time.”

The origins of the project go back six or seven years, to Aucoin’s first discussions of a commission for PBO and Nicholas McGegan, who retired from his 35-year tenure as music director at the end of the 2019–20 season, which came to an unexpectedly early end. In its initial form, Aucoin planned a musical work pairing cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach with his own compositions to texts by Paul Celan.

Celan, the pseudonym of the Romanian-Jewish poet Paul Antschel (1920–1970), became among the most profoundly moving witnesses to the Holocaust through his bleak, elusive, and arresting use of language. Possibly as a result of “survivor guilt”—his parents were murdered in the Holocaust —Celan committed suicide by drowning in the Seine. He was not yet 50. (Last year, when the premiere was originally scheduled, marked the 100th anniversary of Celan’s birth.)

Following his time in a forced labor camp during World War II, poet Paul Celan (left) moved to Bucharest where he met Romanian poet and translator Petre Solomon who became one of his closest friends. Photo courtesy of Public Domain and Petre Solomon  

“Celan is very close to music. You can feel the silence around the words, the pressure around that,” says Aucoin about his longstanding fascination with the poet. While a student, he wrote some instrumental pieces inspired by Celan without setting any texts for voice. The juxtaposition with Bach was envisioned not so much as a program presenting “parallels” but instead “dark mirrorings between Celan’s work and Bach’s cantata texts.” They represent “exact opposites,” according to Aucoin. “Bach expresses this total certainty in the goodness of a particular god and Celan a certainty in absence.”

A few years ago, the project shifted to a union between PBO and the newly formed AMOC. The No One’s Rose, which refers to the name of a collection Celan published in 1963, thus grew beyond a concert piece into a musical-theatrical experiment that was still being shaped at the time of this writing. “The original impetus was mine, but the current idea is almost unrecognizable from mine,” Aucoin puts it.

His current plan is to use three complete Celan poems, along with numerous fragments, in both sung and spoken form (mostly in English translations of the poet’s hermetic original German). The contemporary poet Jorie Graham, with whom Aucoin studied when he was a student at Harvard University, also figures as a key presence in the concept of the piece. “Her poem ‘Deep Water Trawling’ will function as an entr’acte in the center of the piece, where we touch base with the bottom of the ocean—like a black hole,” observes Winokur.

Along with Aucoin’s score, the project features found musical elements and allusions ranging from Bach to Sam Cooke. Cast members contribute songs from popular culture and elsewhere that have personal significance. All these elements allow the audience “to enter a person’s story—just as in the Canterbury Tales, you enter their world for a while and are just with that individual,” according to Aucoin. The result is an ambitiously collaborative ensemble endeavor that calls for 24 musicians from PBO along with the AMOC artists.

American Modern Opera Company soprano Julia Bullock (above) and tenor Paul Appleby will make their debuts with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in The No One's RosePhoto courtesy of American Modern Opera Company

This production is “what AMOC was founded to do,” Winokur says. “This company is interested in opera in an expanded sense, the place where disciplines collide and where we are asked to tell an urgent story using every theatrical resource possible and work together to find a way to tell it.” That means that everyone—not just the singers/actors—becomes a character in the story, a part of this community trying to figure out how to make sense of loss. For Smith, the production tries to ask, “How do we rebuild something that is broken? How do we listen to what has come before to look into the future? What is this new American narrative?”

Aucoin conceived the revised version with Julia Bullock in the role of Celan. “That has less to do with the soprano voice than with Julia’s particular capabilities as an artist,” he explains. “There’s a certain fierceness to Julia’s presence, a blazing intensity. She has played the role of a witness in a number of pieces, like John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, where she was the physicist Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty, who bears witness to the atomic bomb.” This power reminded him of Celan’s position as a poet “who witnessed the unbearable and translates it into experience again.”

“Between the Celan texts, people will be telling their own stories,” Aucoin says. AMOC’s move into a direction seen of late in autofiction is not intended as an effort to convey “documentary reality but material that is inspired by people’s lived experience—their meditations on what happens after a catastrophe. We’re imagining that there’s been a cataclysm and we’re all processing it in different ways—and that Paul Celan can teach us how.”


Thomas May is a freelance writer, critic, educator, and translator whose work has been published internationally. He contributes to the programs of the Lucerne Festival as well as to the New York Times and Musical America.




The No One's Rose is commissioned by Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale and Stanford Live. The production is generously supported by the Stanford Live Commissions and Programming Fund, the Koret Foundation, and The Ross E. Armstrong & Jonas (Jay) K. Stern Jews & Music Fund.