Rosendale’s Widow Jane Mine hosts site-specific “Earth Opera” August 28/29

Elizabeth Clark’s “Earth Opera” will be held August 28-29 in the Widow Jane Mine in Rosendale. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

A remnant of Rosendale’s 19th-century cement-mining industry, the Widow Jane Mine is a crux point between the natural world and human endeavor where magical things can and do happen. Located on Route 213 on the grounds of the old Snyder Estate, now under the stewardship of the Century House Historical Society, it’s an easy stroll into this mysterious womb of the Earth. Widow Jane features a relatively level floor, an underground lake that would serve as a nice retirement home for Gollum and acoustics that lure people to whom acoustics matter greatly to make recordings.

One such sonic pioneer who favored the cave was Pauline Oliveros. A recreation of her 1989 composition The Witness was performed and recorded in the mine this past May by Claire Chase on flutes, Susie Ibarra and Alex Peh on percussion and Senem Pirler on electronics. You can hear it at www.youtube.com/watch?v=g45pGO9oyxo. Oliveros’ students at the Deep Listening Institute, such as Tina Pearson, have also long made the pilgrimage to Widow Jane to incorporate its magic – not to mention the ceaseless tinkling of water drops from the stone ceiling into the lake – into their works. In 1995, Steve Gorn, Tony Levin and Jerry Marotta recorded a whole album of trance music there, titled From the Caves of the Iron Mountain.

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Some locals have been lucky enough to attend concerts at Widow Jane: Japanese drumming by Taiko Masala, Indonesian music by Catskill Mountain Gamelan, South American music by Andes Manta. Often collaborating with the latter two is a harp-and-vocals ensemble called Mamalama, fronted by Elizabeth Clark, a Hudson Valley native who’s married to Andes Manta member Luís Lopez. Mamalama and Catskill Mountain Gamelan share a common member in Henry Lowengard.

For nearly five years now, Clark has been working on an ambitious musical/theatrical/dance production that’s site-specific to the Widow Jane Mine, which she calls Seeds under Nuclear Winter: An Earth Opera. It’s now complete, following a three-year composition residency at Woodstock’s Byrdcliffe Arts Colony, and extensive excerpts will be performed live in the cave on Saturday and Sunday, August 28 and 29.

The inspiration for Seeds under Nuclear Winter came to her in a nightmare on the eve of the 2016 election, while she was traveling to Canada with a group of Indigenous women elders. “I dreamed I was at a monastery playing my harp,” Clark recalls. “There were monks coming down a hallway, wearing hoods, speaking a language I didn’t understand. They scared me. When I looked under their hoods, there was nothing there.” She awoke to find the “grandmothers” weeping over the election results. Not long afterward, Clark found herself at the Garrison Center to take a musical intensive with “my favorite composer ever,” Meredith Monk. “I realized it was the place I had been in my dream.”

The mental imagery of her nightmare, the creative spark of the weekend studying with Monk, the anxieties of the aftermath of the presidential election and the desire for some way to bridge the “intense division” between Americans somehow gelled in Clark’s head into a concept for this “Earth opera,” set in an underground post-apocalyptic environment. The seeds in the title, she says, refer to “the hope underneath the difficulty – to remember how connected we are to each other.”

Oddly, Clark notes, the physical isolation enforced by the pandemic has reinforced that craving for connection. Her own artistic journey has always been interwoven with the desire to heal. While she was pursuing her music degree at SUNY Purchase, and had just taken up the harp, she had a job in a nursing home, where she would often play to soothe the elderly patients. One night, all the nurses were busy, and one woman in her 90s was “actively dying,” with no family or visitors to keep watch beside her. “One of the nurses asked me if I would go be with her,” she remembers. So, she sat improvising on her harp, while the dying woman “locked eyes with me.” To Clark, it was a gift and a privilege to be able to ease her passage.

In the years since, performing in hospice and hospital situations has become an area of specialization. Clark studied thanatology and “contemplative musicianship” through the Chalice of Repose Project in Mt. Angel, Oregon, under the tutelage of Therese Shroeder-Sheker. She played her harp through the deaths of her grandparents and great-grandparents. She has also worked with comatose traumatic brain injury patients, tracheotomy patients on breathing machines, people with opioid addictions. And she’s active in the Sage Project in Stone Ridge, which assigns artists to collaborate with community elders to tell their life stories; a documentary based on the group’s work with Holocaust survivors is currently in production.

“Music reaches the heart quickly. It heals, it teaches, moves us, soothes us, riles us, strengthens us and gives us good company if we are lonely. It soothes a cranky child. We can pray with it, we can cry into it, we put into musical forms our joy, sorrow, wonder,” Clark writes of her work. “It breaks our heart. It heals our broken heart.”

Now, as Mamalama’s magnum opus, comes Seeds under Nuclear Winter, a massive interdisciplinary work of “modern sacred music” that requires a cast of 24 musicians, actors, dancers and choreographers, plus several ensembles: Andes Manta, Catskill Mountain Gamelan, a vocal choir and a string section. Besides music and movement, the spectacle also involves “moving visual art, light experiments, multisensory experience, storytelling and audience participation.”

Says Clark, “It was written for that actual space – that whole space, and not just a line of performers on a stage. The sound is often coming from all around you.” Incorporated in the acoustic experience will be the arches and pillars inside the former mine, which she calls “an instrument by itself… There’s a lot of reverb, like singing in a cathedral.”

The cast for the premiere of the Earth Opera includes musicians Elizabeth Clark, Henry Lowengard, Annie Roland, Luís Lopez, Bolivar Lopez, Wilson Lopez, Jorge Lopez, Dorcinda Knauth, Chris Anderson, Stuart Leigh, Nava Tabak, Peter Wetzler, Chris Andersen, Cornelia Logan, Rusty Boris, Sharon Penz, Goni Ronan, Antonia Weeks and Sharon Penz, plus actors/dancers Luís Mojica, Elwin Cuevas, Phil Levine, Noa Graham, Erika Kari McCarthy, Anne Arden McDonald and James Adelman, with choreography by Penz and Clyde Forth and artwork and stage direction by McCarthy and Adelman.

Both the Saturday and the Sunday performances commence at 3 p.m. Bring a folding chair and a light jacket, sweater or sweatshirt; even if it’s a 95-degree day up top, it will be refreshingly cool in the cave. Events happen rain or shine at the Widow Jane Mine. The Snyder Estate is located at 668 Route 213, a little west of downtown Rosendale. Look for the iron gates adorned with a silhouette of the Brooklyn Bridge (whose underwater footings were famously made with sturdy Rosendale cement).

Tickets cost $26 general admission, $21 for Century House members and $16 for students; admission is free for children aged 12 and under. To purchase, visit www.centuryhouse.org/sunw-2021.