I’m standing in Penn Station near Gate 6, waiting, I hope, for the Empire Service to board. A woman with mid-length blonde hair and a cotton Nehru-style jacket stands ahead of me. I ask if the line is the line for Albany and she says yes.
We talk about trains, then why we’re here. She’s a singer, she tells me. Opera and theatre. Teaches part-time at one of the colleges in Albany, not mine. I tell her I’m a writer, professor. Almost in passing, the singer mentions her current project: an opera about a poet.
Oh, I say. Which one?
William Carlos Williams?
She answers in the form of a question, as if I might not know who the name.
William Carlos Williams! I say back. He’s my favorite all-time poet!
It feels odd saying that; I mean, normally one would say “all-time favorite” when referring to a baseball player or movie. But a poet?
Anyway, hearing more about the Williams opera has to wait. It is confirmed that the line for Albany is in fact the line for Albany, and the crowd is moved uniformly toward the escalator.
We sit across the aisle, the train half-empty. The singer’s name is Kara Cornell (pictured above), and she lives upstate, a few towns over from me. In the Williams opera, she plays Flossie, the doctor's wife. A baritone-co-star plays Dr. Williams, two girls play the Williams sons as boys. Another couple plays art patrons whose name escapes me. And Ezra Pound. A singing Ez!
As way make our way past Yonkers, Cornell lets me look at the score. It’s a full-on opera, The News from Poems, written and composed by Susan Kander. I’d written a libretto once years ago, and I want to say Kander’s name sorta rings a bell. Initially a six-song cycle (“The Red Wheelbarrow,” “This is Just to Say” among them), Kander has expanded the work into a full-fledged opera.
Cornell loves her character. “It’s fun because she gets more drunk as the opera goes on,” she says. One scene takes place in Paris, where the Williams family lived from 1928 to 1929. She sings a Flossie snippet in clear mezzo-soprano.
“I love Paree, I love Paree!”
Even whisper-sung, Cornell’s voice fills our part of the train. No one seems to mind.
We have one Facebook friend in common, WAMC’s Joe Donahue, host of The Roundtable. I tell her about The Summer King, an opera composed by my old friend Daniel Sonenberg, about Negro League home run king Josh Gibson, for which I co-wrote the libretto.
Cornell’s repertoire is varied: solo, theatre, opera. Lately, there’s been a pattern, if two roles make a pattern. In another, recent performance, the opera Shining Brow, Cornell plays Catherine Wright, another, shall we say, less-than-happy wife of a prominent artist, architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
There will be a world-premiere atelier (workshop) performance of The News from Poems at The Center for Contemporary Opera’s Cell Theatre in New York on Saturday, November 2nd, 2013 at 8pm.
I mark my calendar. Amtrak's Empire line just got more business.
I am always moved uniformly by a spirit of my uselessness on the train. Flossie-Kara and I check email on our devices. I’d cancelled classes today because I’d be travelling; students have been emailing me all day, anxious about the rather simple directions I gave them for their take-home assignments. I resolve to ignore them until I get home.
I drink the rest of my coffee, now cold, I bought in the train station, and read about Meg Ryan’s new private life in New York on the cover of People magazine. The leaves outside turn a deeper and deeper orange as we head further north.