UNL Opera presents ‘The Highest Yellow’

UNL Opera presents "The Highest Yellow: Healing Vincent Van Gogh" on Feb. 21 and 23 in Kimball Recital Hall.
UNL Opera presents "The Highest Yellow: Healing Vincent Van Gogh" on Feb. 21 and 23 in Kimball Recital Hall.

UNL Opera presents ‘The Highest Yellow’

calendar icon22 Jan 2020    user iconBy Kathe C. Andersen

Lincoln, Neb.--The Glenn Korff School of Music’s Opera program presents the new opera-cum-musical “The Highest Yellow: Healing Vincent Van Gogh,” which tells the story of the six months following the night artist Vincent Van Gogh severed his ear. This full production will be the first, since the commissioned debut at the Tony Award-winning Signature Theatre.

An opera cum musical means that this musical work for the stage is composed using some of the conventions typical of both opera and music theatre.

“There are melodies associated with characters that return when the character returns to stage; there is continuous music with very few breaks for dialogue among the characters; there is a small three-person chorus; there is no dancing, but there is a moving story told through music,” said director Alisa Belflower, coordinator of musical theatre studies at Nebraska.

When Van Gogh moved from Paris to Provence, where the story is set, he wrote to his brother about the bright clarity of the sunlight compared to the gray of Paris.

“Van Gogh was fascinated by capturing the energy of light on his canvases painted in sun-drenched Arles, France,” Belflower said. “He chose bright yellows—The Highest Yellow—to illuminate the darkness in his paintings and in his life.”

“The Highest Yellow” features music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa and a book by John Strand.

“For months, I pursued securing the rights to produce this privately held work,” Belflower said. “I know the composer and his work well and admire his genius and creativity. Michael John LaChiusa is not afraid to compose big emotion and intelligent works that do not pander to audiences looking for light entertainment. He composes art for thinking, feeling people, who ask questions. I support that and believe in looking at profound issues on stage.”

This privately held work is not yet available to be rented and performed by any inquiring production company.

“Our production can change the future of this work and entice other production companies to see ‘The Highest Yellow’ as an appealing option,” Belflower said. “In all the new works we develop and produce here at UNL and the Lied Center, we are contributing to the future of the art form and preparing our students for their futures in that ever-evolving professional arena.”

“The Highest Yellow” is the 18th new work for the musical stage that Belflower has produced and directed at Nebraska in the last decade.

“I'm determined to make a positive difference in the future of the art form that I love so passionately,” she said.

Van Gogh was a Dutch post-impressionist painter who created more than 2,100 artworks in a single decade. He also suffered from psychotic episodes. After he severed most of his left ear, he was brought to a local hospital where he was treated by a young intern, Dr. Félix Rey. Rey believed he could help Van Gogh recover from the sickness that drove him into bizarre, uncontrolled behavior.

History reveals that Rey and Van Gogh developed a friendship. Through a mingling of fact and fiction in “The Highest Yellow,” we discover what that friendship may have been.

“I am attracted to many different aspects, but the theme of the show resounds profoundly in me. The current that runs through the show and that motivates all the characters is hope,” Belflower said. “Van Gogh is a shining example of the power of hope. In his lifetime, he never knew the public acclaim that causes his artwork to sell for hundreds of millions of dollars, and yet he continued to paint in the hope that someday his art would make a difference. The young intern who treated Van Gogh hoped that he could help him. The young woman to whom Van Gogh gave his severed ear, was driven by the hope of a better life in which she could love and be loved in return. There are many additional examples of how hope fuels the energy to keep trying in ‘The Highest Yellow.’ In my opinion, the power of hope is underestimated in our culture, and I want to celebrate it in this production.”

Belflower said throughout her life she has known people, who have struggled with mental illness.

“It is a sickness like any other, but out of ignorance, our society has placed an unbearable stigma on the abnormal behaviors that result from a mental sickness,” she said. “Van Gogh had a mental illness that appeared in episodes of behavior he could not control interspersed with periods of intelligent lucidity. He was taunted and mocked by the children of Arles, when he lived there. His neighbors signed a petition to have him removed from town. The doctors tried and did not have the expertise to help him recover. He lived in fear of losing control again and what might happen. We have come a surprisingly short distance in addressing mental illness, since the late 1880s, when Van Gogh suffered without relief. I want the audience to feel that but for a small shift in circumstance of health, it could be them. Empathy opens the door to care enough to obliterate the stigma that puts a second burden on those struggling with mental illness. It’s ignorance that caused our government to privatize mental health care, leaving help for mental illness readily available—only if you have deep enough pockets to afford it.”

Composer LaChiusa is scheduled to attend the premiere of “The Highest Yellow” on opening night. It will be his first return trip to Lincoln since 2003, when Belflower produced the developmental staged reading of his musical “Hotel C’est L’amour” in Kimball Hall.

“At first, I found LaChiusa’s work so inspiring that I wrote him a letter telling him that I wanted his permission to use his music in my teaching,” she said. “He generously responded with his permission and unpublished scores. That began a friendship that we have enjoyed for many years now.”

He is an internationally celebrated composer, lyricist, librettist and author. He has served as a composer-in-residence at opera companies such as the Chicago Lyric, Houston Grand Opera and Minnesota Opera, as well as other international opera companies. A dozen of his musicals have been produced on- and off-Broadway. As an author, LaChiusa has contributed articles to Opera News, The New York Times and others.

“He is one of the most brilliant people I've ever met, and I'm honored to say that we share a special artist's bond of friendship born of mutual respect,” Belflower said.

Belflower said “The Highest Yellow” has “beautiful music that draws on period French melodies and a wide palette of contemporary classical and music theatre styles.”

The work will feature a chamber orchestra on stage conducted by alumnus Dr. David Galant. The cast includes current students, faculty and an alumnus.

“They all have something powerful and exciting to bring to their roles. The cast members have won multiple awards including international and national recognitions for their performances,” she said. “The cast of twelve features a wonderful role I asked Dr. William Shomos to fill. It's a perfect fit for Bill to take on the role of the Chief of Surgery, who is pivotal in our story. Singing Vincent Van Gogh is returning UNL alumnus Nathaniel Sullivan, who graduated as a Presser Scholar a few years ago and has completed his Masters in a program working with Dawn Upshaw. Nathaniel has been featured in roles he has had the honor to premier in new operas and when he returned to Tanglewood this past summer, he was awarded the Grace B. Jackson Prize. Nathanial won the most recent NATS National Music Theatre Competition for emerging young artists. Local audiences may remember Nathan's last performance on stage in Kimball as Stine in UNL Opera's production of ‘City of Angels’ or a number of UNL Opera productions previous to that. The Carson School is collaborating with a superb design team that includes Prof. Jamie Bullins, who was excited enough about this production to offer to design the costumes himself.”

Belflower and her design team made the decision to contrast life inside the hospital where all is prescribed and safe with life outside the hospital where anything can happen.

“You will find hard angles and heavy minimalist structures in the hospital and more gracious curves outside the hospital,” she said. “During his most productive years when our story takes place, Vincent Van Gogh innovatively began painting with bolder colors in strong strokes employed to create dramatic contrasts in a myriad of aggressive textures—this has been an inspiration to our lighting designer, who will bring the stage to vivid light. Our beautiful costumes will visually take us back to 1888, when our story begins.”

Belflower said it is a vital mission for her to give life to new works like “The Highest Yellow.”

“I treasure composers. I love the art of communicating through song. I've loved it all my life,” she said. “Without composers, there is nothing to sing. I believe composers are not as treasured as they have earned the right to be. To create something so beautiful and moving to fill a silence—is an extraordinary gift that also requires learned skills. Many people love songs that become a part of the fabric of their lives to such a degree that a song can cue a memory from an earlier point in life that might otherwise be lost; yet, those same people often give credit to the performer instead of an unrecognized composer. Not many people could name a living composer from seeing their picture. If we do not nurture contemporary composers, our art form becomes a celebration of its history and runs the risk of eventually eroding. I nurture living composers by giving their work to audiences with as much love, accuracy, and heart as is possible.”  

She hopes local audiences will not miss seeing “The Highest Yellow.”

“Few are likely to have heard of this show before because it is new. Please do not let that keep you away. It would be so sad to create something so beautiful to be seen by only a few people,” Belflower said. “The show has an approximate running time of only two hours—two hours you will not soon forget. Our superb student performers and guest artists deserve a full house to receive their gift of this glorious performance.”

The music is beautiful, evocative, and sophisticated. The story is uniquely compelling.

“I find Vincent Van Gogh’s and his doctor's lives absolutely fascinating, and I believe our audience will, too,” Belflower said.

Performances of “The Highest Yellow:  Healing Vincent Van Gogh” are at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 21 and Sunday, Feb. 23 in Kimball Recital Hall. Tickets are $20 adults and $10 for students/seniors and are available at the door. For advance ticket sales, contact the Lied Center Box Office at (402) 472-4747.