REVIEWS FOR BIRD OF THE INNER EYE
‘Bird Of The Inner Eye’ sings at last
By Beti Webb Trauth | Times Standard [Humboldt County]
Published September 2, 2021
This past Sunday afternoon, I viewed an intriguing, live, online, streaming workshop production of “Bird Of The Inner Eye,” an original chamber opera conceived in 2019 and directed by Dell’Arte International’s founding
artistic director, Joan Schirle.
She created its libretto based on the letters and archives of the
late (1910-2001) world-renowned American painter Morris Graves,
well known in Humboldt County for his 35-year residence in Loleta and, of course,
his namesake museum in Eureka.
Joining Schirle to create the musical score (thanks to a 2019 financial grant
from Opera America awarded to women composers) was New York-based
Gina Leishman — a gifted composer and multi-instrumentalist with a broad
musical background encompassing opera, jazz, circus, classical and musical theater.
It was important for Schirle to partner with another woman to co-create the
work, especially since she wanted the libretto exploring Graves’ paradoxical
creative and personal life supported (in non-romantic ways) by his close
relationships with women who were individually his art dealer, friend and patron.
In any case, although all of the roles for the singers/actors were cast in 2019 and
were ready to present their first workshop production of the chamber opera
at Dell’Arte, like every other live musical and theatrical event scheduled to be
performed after March 13, 2020, they were abruptly canceled by the pandemic.
After over a year, although the production was finally able to be rescheduled (still not live, but online) and the leading role of Morris Graves was still being portrayed by an original, fine singer/actor, the roles performed by the three women appearing in the opera had to be recast, with Schirle herself adding her alto voice as a fourth singer, and acting several roles as well.
However, before I go into my review of what they achieved, let me fill in some important background about Morris Graves himself. He was always fascinated and inspired by different birds in their natural habitats and began painting them early in his career, leading to recognition as a major talent at the age of 23 in 1933 by winning a major prize from the Seattle Art Museum for his “Moon Swan.”
He developed into “an introspective and intensely spiritual artist who brought the influence of East Asian aesthetics and philosophy to bear typically through images of birds, flowers, chalices and other symbols of Eastern Spirituality,” according to The Art Story, https://www.theartstory.org. He did so in his paintings, his homes (in particular the one in Loleta he called “The Lake”) and his gardens.
There are so many layers in this remarkable man’s life that Schirle could have chosen to explore and focus on in her opera’s libretto, but she chose one event in particular that impacted him as a young artist: It was 1942 during World War II, when he was drafted into the Army and refused to take the oath of allegiance, stating firmly over and over that he was a conscientious objector and would never kill anyone nor destroy the environment in the process.
No matter how much he was threatened by the military, he never gave in, and eventually they gave up and sent him to be imprisoned for 11 months in Camp Roberts. He fell into such a deep depression there that a camp psychiatrist concluded him “ill-equipped for military life,” and recommended he be discharged (honorably) in December 1943. (He rejected the “honorably.”)
After returning to civilian life, the fascinatingly eccentric Graves was soon back on his path to what became an extraordinary, long and prolific career. Today, he’s recognized as one of the finest American painters ever and, luckily for lovers of his instantly recognizable paintings, the Morris Graves Foundation (after Graves’ death at age 91) was instrumental in making a number of his works not already in the possession of various art museums — including Eureka’s — available to be seen on various websites as well. However, the series of bird paintings used for background slides represent the title of the opera — and they were chosen by Schirle because they were the ones created by Graves in 1944 after he was discharged and was able to go home to his beautiful Northwest forests and streams and once more express himself artistically through his “birds.”
Graves believed that “birds act as manifestations of an inner reality, representative of the inner eye.” And he used this series to visually “address the demoralizing effect” he was experiencing in prison during that depressing winter of 1943 “that seemed interminable, as if the war would never end.”
So, that’s the title Schirle chose for her opera that focuses on that period of his life:
“Bird Of The Inner Eye.”
Now, let me give you the names of the intrepid cast of accomplished, singers/actors, musicians,
and creative production team that presented the very first version of this long-awaited chamber
opera produced by Dell’Arte International and the Arcata Playhouse, which was live and
streamed online on YouTube from the Arcata Playhouse.
Directed by the indomitable librettist, Schirle, she is joined by her equally determined and talented composer/musical director, Leishman, with an onstage format used in the production of chamber opera. This means the singers/actors are seated in a circle, rising to sing or deliver their spoken lines of the libretto into their microphones (with their musical scores in front of them on lecterns), and sitting back down again until it’s time for them to perform again either as solo artists or sometimes together.
And, Leishman’s original score was not composed for “lightweight singers.” From the very first moment after the sound of “tweeting birds” and the opera’s vocal score began, it was clear (in my ears) that the deliberate dissonance chosen for the “melodic” approach to her music echoed those found in the works of Gian Carlo Menotti, Phillip Glass and Bertoldt Brecht. (And since the composer is involved with a quintet “dedicated to the songs of Brecht,” that makes sense.)
Of course, the result for the listeners is being constantly kept a little off balance as what they might
expect to hear to express certain emotions being sung or played, takes quite a bit of getting used to.
However, that’s also what jazz has done when singers and musicians perform in unexpected patterns
that both put us off and draw us in. And, in this case, chamber opera can, too.
ndeed, their marvelous cast did just that, headed by Humboldt County’s incomparable tenor/actor,
David Belton Powell, as Morris Graves. He delivers an absolutely stunning portrayal — his glorious
tenor dipping and soaring with astute emotional shadings that he more than matches with the depth
and range of his acting skills.
Joining him with their own, exceptional performance expertise are marvelous mezzo- soprano
Dina Emerson; elegant soprano Elisabeth Harrington; and versatile soprano Jodi Gilbert. And,
as previously mentioned, Schirle steps in when needed to add her earthy alto.
And each of them holds her own when it comes to delivering different characters who come and go
during this period in Graves’ life. There’s also a special appearance by a fascinating, “inner eye bird
puppet” created by James Hildebrandt, which he skillfully operates with choreography designed
by Daniel Stein.
Musician Garrick Woods, who plays an excellent cello, also has a brief (but impressive) vocal solo as
one of Graves’ lost lovers. The rest of the accomplished, professional musicians who must master the
challenging score (and, I might add, nail it), include its composer Leishman, who plays
both glass armonica and accordion; polished pianist Nancy Correll; and peerless clarinetist
In addition, the technical production crew is superb in supplying the audio and visual magic, which
provides the essential artistic foundation that enhances everything about this streaming production.
So, major kudos go to Russ Cole for his smooth sound design and expert engineering, and
Michael Foster for his vivid, specific lighting on the performers. The finishing touch is David Ferney’s
gorgeous, detailed videography. It brings Graves and his paintings to moody life, as they flow in and
out on a screen behind the stage. Nate FitzSimons and MacKenzie Ridgewood stage manage.
The associate producer is Jane Hill; Playhouse producer, Jackie Dandeneau; and Dell’Arte producer,
The opera’s running time is 90 minutes (with a 10-minute intermission). And, you can make plans to
see the filmed, live version on YouTube. There will be a link provided so that you can view both the
production’s program, as well as its libretto, before you see it online.
To purchase tickets and for complete information, go to www.birdinnereye.com.
It’s an experience you’ll never forget!
Pictured are Joan Schirle, right, with James Hildebrandt.
Schirle directed “Bird Of The Inner Eye.”
Hildebrandt created the show’s “inner eye bird puppet.”
(David Ferney photo)
Soprano Elisabeth Harrington is one of the “Bird Of The Inner Eye” performers.
(Albert Cervantes photo)
Pictured at left is Garrick Woods playing cello in the production of“Bird Of The Inner Eye.” Joining Joan Schirle to create the musical scorefor the show was New York-based Gina Leishman (back to camera),a composer and multi-instrumentalist with a broad musical background.(Albert Cervantes photo)
Bird of the Inner Eye: A Chamber Opera
by Pat Bitton, Theatre Critic, North Coast Journal
It’s not often than one is lucky enough to witness the birthing of an entirely new and multidimensional work that brings together poetic writing, viscerally impactful art, ethereal music, and exquisite singing in a single two-hour portrait of a man. But such has been the good fortune of those of us present at the first workshop performance of Bird of the Inner Eye.
Morris Graves (1910-2001) was, like most of us, a complex and complicated human being. Unlike most of us, he was able to express those complexities in a lifetime of visual arts and in the lost art of letter writing in such a way that talented practitioners of the dramatic (Joan Schirle) and musical (Gina Leishman) arts were able to weave a vital portrait of this extraordinary man in operatic form. Both women drew considerable inspiration from their separate retreats at The Lake, Graves’ home in Loleta, California, as well as from Graves’ Selected Letters, published in 2013 by the University of Washington Press. The words are largely Graves’ own, reshaped and molded by Schirle, given dimensionality and depth by Leishman, brought to life by the singers, and expanded into a true multimedia whole by the musicians and accompanying slideshow of artworks and photographs.
We are introduced to Graves’ attachment to birds from the very outset through the Bird Chorus and the otherworldly effect of Leishman’s glass armonica, both of which act as connecting threads and punctuation points throughout the opera. While the focus is the period of Graves’ life during which he was struggling with the nature of war, both internal and external, and the role of the artist in responding to world events, we also come to understand his journey to the artist and man he became through snippets of his life along the way. It’s refreshing, for example, to meet the playful Graves through the antic silliness of his “junk snoopers” road trip with fellow artists and one-time lover Guy Anderson, and to revisit this more fanciful side of his nature ten years on at a make-believe tea party in the Oregon woods with the Spirit Bird and a very confused Army Patrol Officer.
The core of our understanding of the dilemma Graves faces comes from the events between these bookends of levity, when he endures eleven months of confinement in Army stockades while attempting, to no, avail, to gain Conscientious Objector status during World War II. He’s not only grappling with his own feelings about war but managing his simultaneous “arrival” as a major artist. He’s torn between feeding his need to be adored by the critics and the mental anguish of his inability to create in the darkness of his detention, while the intermittent birdsong serves to remind him of the world outside that he cannot reach. As he finally receives his discharge papers (“on psychiatric grounds”), everything comes to a head in the Dance of the Wounded Gull, a three-dimensional puppet experience created by master puppeteer James Hildebrandt and based on one of Graves’ best-known paintings.
Once the external war is in the rearview mirror, Graves struggles to begin painting again. A wonderfully chaotic duet between Graves and Marian Willard, his art dealer, brings to the surface the war he’s fighting within himself to find the direction that will let him paint again. Thwarted once again by the US Army in his attempt to spend time in Japan, he flees to Ireland in yet another ultimately futile attempt to create an environment conducive to painting. Instead, he comes to the realization that his long-term relationship with lover Richard Svare will never be what either of them wants it to be.
After another painful encounter with the haut monde of the art world as a result of winning the first (and only) Windsor Award from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Graves returns to the US, only to find that his beloved home is surrounded by construction and an all-out war on nature. But this war turns out to be his creative savior. Moving to The Lake in Loleta, far from what he calls Machine Man, he finds solace in the forest and is finally able to paint again. The beauty of nature has become his opiate, driving him ever onward to protect her through paint from the ravages of man, and the Spirit Bird has returned to guide him.
As Graves, David Belton Powell’s performance is spine-tinglingly good. His voice and facial expressions follow Graves’ highs and lows so effortlessly that we forget we are not looking at the “very, very tall, very, very thin” man described in the opera’s first aria. Sopranos Jodi Gilbert and Elisabeth Harrington and mezzo-soprano Dina Emerson are wonderfully agile and hauntingly evocative as they variously channel birds, Graves’ mother Helen, his friend Jan Thompson, his art dealer Marian Willard, and various art critics, patrons, and artist friends – especially given that these three only became part of this production less than a month before opening night. Librettist, director, and alto Joan Schirle fills out the female vocal contingent as Bird 4, when not doing a stand-out job as various Army personnel and other persons “in authority”. Rounding out the vocal talent is cellist Garrick Woods, who makes an unexpectedly well-rounded baritone contribution as former lover Svare.
The musical team, led by New York based ex-pat British composer and multi-instrumentalist Gina Leishman, excels in tracking the emotional rises and falls of the libretto. Leishman’s glass armonica brings an ethereal quality that feels at one with the Spirit Bird, and her accordion bring a welcome brightness. Nancy Correll’s piano and Michael Moore’s clarinet play off each other wonderfully well, expressing a multiplicity of moods, and the consistent flow of Woods’ cello has its own dissonant moment in the spotlight in support of the Dance of the Wounded Gull.
Throughout the production, each element of the piece reflects and builds on the other elements. When the mood is dark, so are the paintings, and the music is harsh and dissonant. When the mood is optimistic, the paintings are colorful and the music bounces merrily along. When Graves is fighting inner demons, the music is stark and staccato, the art tortured and tight, the words ping-ponging around the performance space like bullets. And when he begins to understand the role of the artist’s inner eye and emerges into the light of the natural world at The Lake, a gentle calmness settles over the art and the music, as the artist finds his way towards hopes and dreams to a backdrop of birdsong.
There are clearly areas of the piece that would be greatly enhanced by an expanded cast and fully staged production, incorporating paintings into scenery and performers into paintings. There is only so much one can do with spoken or sung vignettes, an art-and-photographs slideshow, and surtitles, which risks leaving the audience at times struggling to make the connection between events, arias, and attendant imagery. Given the importance of the role of light, the ability to use lighting more widely and creatively would also clearly be beneficial. And I for one would love to see more puppet work and a full-on Gorey-esque staging of the party of the uninvited, complete with rotting turkey and sputtering candles.
Yes, Joan, Bird of the Inner Eye was definitely something worth bringing into the world. The world we are living in now faces as much chaos as that Graves lived through, and the questions it raises are universal. Women made the genius of Morris Graves available to the world, and it is two extraordinarily talented women who have brought this incisive insight into the artist’s dilemma to the world. I look forward to seeing this Bird grow and evolve to its fullest possibilities.
“Terrific opportunity to hear this. The many facets of Joan Schirle, along with this treasured team, come to life, with simplicity, skill, and heart. Love the paintings, the voices, the ambience. Most surely a product for our time, while also as ancient as it gets. If only our machine age could remember its roots. Morris Graves offers a reckoning for us all. How do we get this work to operas across the country?”
— Deborah Bell, UNC Professor of Design
“Bravo! What an incredible piece all around. The concept, the music composition is exquisite… so many textures enveloping…
David Powell's voice is so smooth. Everyone, the whole production was done so well. My compliments to all. Thank you.”
— Julie Froblom, musician
“Brilliant and sublime! Those sonorities were phenomenal. Thank you so very much for bringing this to life.”
— Anonymous post
“What a wonderful show! Well done!”
— Joani Rose
“Great work everyone. Thank you.”
— Keith Barker
“Bravo! Beautiful work!”
— Jesse March
“Breathtaking! Congrats to all who made this possible. So thankful to have had a livestream option to experience it!”
— Danielle Knapp, Curator, Jordan Schnitzler Gallery at U. of Oregon
“Bravo! Wonderful work, one and all!
Beautiful writing, singing, playing, acting. Loved it!”
— Sheldon Brown, musician, Oakland, CA
“Very moving, haunting and beautiful.”
— David Loux
“Wonderful!! I love this piece.”
— Jeff Raz, Alameda CA
“Thank you! I am touched and inspired and grateful…"
— Johanna Putnoi , Palo Alto, CA
“Bravo to all; amazingly powerful work.
Music dynamic and fresh, articulate.
Clarinet, so gorgeous. Thank you.”
— Sarah A. Maninger
Comments received in emails:
“What a treat to experience the fruits of your labor in person. The voices were incredible and the story rich. Seeing Graves' art displayed on such a large screen was overwhelming. And a special treat seeing you perform, Joan. I hope you felt rewarded by the fulfillment of your vision. And now keeping fingers crossed that you receive a bid from an opera company. Who could resist? I think they will have to fight over it.”
— Sandy Tilles
“Wow, we were so stunned by your beautiful Opera! Fortunately we had a pretty nice speaker hooked up to my I-Pad so we were able to hear the voices and music clearly, SOOOOOO BEAUTIFUL! Our hats are off to you and Gina; I don't even have the words to express how moved we were. While it evidently was supposed to have more visuals and such, I really enjoyed being able to appreciate the libretto and music on its own. And to pull it off with all of the last minute changes, SHEEEEESH! You guys ROCK! The performers were great. I can't wait to see and hear it again in its full production. Please let us know of any future performances!”
— Lisa Garcia & Joe DeAndreis, San Francisco
"I've never heard anything like “Bird of the Inner Eye.” Seeing the play adds depth and color to a soundtrack that encompasses and captures many human emotions. The players introduce you to Morris Graves through exquisite soundscapes, including birdsong and unique compositions. At times, the harmonizing singers create timeless, haunting and spellbinding songs, at times truly remarkable moments. Dialogue sequences embody the dramatic flair of a typical play, while the songs woven through “Bird of the Inner Eye” are incomparable to anything I've ever witnessed. I am very thoroughly impressed with the skill of Dell'Arte International performers, and would recommend this show to anyone with a penchant for drama and music!”
— Radio Review from KMUD Tanya Horlick
“To say it was amazing is an understatement! I, who have never been a great opera fan, have never seen anything like it. Beautiful, sensitive, innovative, and the amount of talent and creativity just blew my mind. When I was a kid, my mother used to put Caruso records (remember those red vinyls?) on her RCA Victrola to get me and my brother out of the house (screaming!), so I unfortunately never really moved on until I saw yours the other night. It was actually an epiphany. Please thank Gina for me as well as I might have stayed ignorant for the rest of my life. I hope that I will be able to see it live someday. I can only imagine that the feedback is positive. It must be quite something for the two of you to have carried out such a feat — and succeeded — and taken so many other talented people along with you on your journey.”
— Gail Wagman (France)
“I look forward to several viewings over the next few days. Bravo! Spectacular!
— Rupert Macnee
“I loved how the libretto, score, and imagery harmonized. My partner so loved it that she watched it again on my phone today, her birthday. Listening, I was taken by your unvarnished love for Morris, the man. It was moving. This is a heroic opus, celebrating artistry on many levels, of several players on satisfying levels.”
— Donald Forrest, actor
“WOW!!! I loved it! Thank you for all your work, effort and artistry.”
— Laura Muñoz
“I just finished watching your opera.
I loved it so much.
What a masterpiece.”
— Tim Randles, musician, Arcata CA
“Just watched the remarkable piece on Morris Graves. Very impressive….all aspects.”
“What an original and moving production. Very well done. Loved the singers' emotions, the glass armonica and accordion, the juxtaposition of Graves' images so well chosen, the bird sounds mixed with voices (especially at the end), the excellent camerawork. The bird puppet brought tears to my eyes. I was surprised to hear that the clarinet was added at the last minute, so integral to the work it seemed to me.”
— June Lambla, Kentucky
“WOW. That was so beautiful, compelling, and haunting, and, at times, heartbreaking.”
— Christina Nielsen, San Jose, CA
“After seeing no live anything for over a year, I am so glad that is the piece I was able to see, as if coming out of the dark of isolation and into the light of live theater! It was an experience I will never forget. I got so much from it.
— Jessi Langston, Redway, CA
“Elegant and seamless — loved the armonica ‘singing glasses’ and the juxtaposition of images and performers.”
— Judy Slattum, Capitola CA
“Well my dear, that was quite lovely! We had a fantastic Monday night, moving, deep, connected. Whoever directed your live shoot did you a real solid on that, and I hope from all (six?) cameras you will be able to edit something all the more amazing. That was quite a stream. I think you will get an uncommonly great video rendition of a really solid and moving opera. We're sending you love and light, and Gina too. Dear friend. Dear, dear talented friend.”
— Stefan Golux, Point Reyes, CA
“Congratulations! I loved every bit of the presentation. I can’t wait to continue to follow this project. Since watching yesterday I keep thinking about the artist engaged with the spiritual and transcendent through their work — how those paintings portrayed such depth, mystery. And then your gorgeous, rich poetic text, the music which was both philosophical in sound and beautiful to hear. This piece in itself gives the opiatic beauty Graves sought. Thanks for your work and the inspiration!”
— Kathryn Cesarz, Theatre Artist
“Morris Graves never moved me before. Today, through you, he moved me. I had already been moved by the libretto, which I read yesterday. Today it was the accumulating effect of the words, the visuals and the music. I was struck by Graves’ use of white in his paintings. Perhaps sometimes snow, but I think often as a way of recording the bird sound around the birds or the energy of life that permeates the natural world…
“Such delicately drawn birds, so accurate in most ways that I wonder at his bird faces: round and flat with straight-ahead-eyes. Most birds have an eye on each side of the head so you don’t see both at the same time. Owls are an exception. In fact many of his bird faces look like owl faces superimposed on another bird. This was not lack of observation. Graves chose to do this…
“Early on I had trouble with the music; I felt overwhelmed. By intermission I felt drawn in and that the music was “therapeutic.” In the second act I began to suspect my early discomfort with discord was resolving toward harmony (as Graves’ life might have been).
“I left the theater feeling that I had been taken on a meaningful and healing journey. A gift, given the current state of the world. Thank you…”
— Bobbi Ricca
“Congratulations on a great performance! It was truly wonderful on every level. Thank you for working on this amazing project!”
— Daniela Mineva, Prof. of Music, Humboldt State University
“Oh Joan, Bravo, Bravissimo: that was amazing, emotional, riveting… Thank you all for a wonderful performance. I think Morris Graves would have been touched by that: the acknowledgment of his work, and especially of his spirit… It was really a great, moving production. Thank you again, all of you.”
— Susan Barnstein
“Absolutely wonderful creation. You indeed captured Morris’s spiritual urgency and deep commitment to exploring the ‘inner eye’.”
— Margaret (Margie) Smith
“The words, the music, the voices, and the art came together in a synchronicity that has buried itself inside of me and will not leave for a long time. It deserves to become a full stage production and I truly hope that it will. In gratitude….”
— Pat Bitton
“Jodi: Wow you nailed some difficult passages there (was that a high A?) with your usual expressivity. Some nice undulating writing for voices, especially around 10 minutes in, pre-Army induction. All the singers done good. Always nice to hear clarinet in B-minor. As an old conscientious objector, of course I was interested in the story. Some good paintings, too; I'd never heard of him. In short: it's the best opera I've seen in six years.”
— Kevin Whitehead, NPR Jazz critic