Right about this time last year, the Widow Jane Mine in Rosendale played host to an incomplete version of Seeds under Nuclear Winter: An Earth Opera. Hungry for a dose of live arts after two years of lockdown, an audience of about 500 people turned out for the two performances of the site-specific work in that iconic, evocative, acoustically famed cavern space. Now a full version of Seeds is ready to be unveiled, with a cast of 25 Hudson Valley musicians, artists, dancers, actors and choreographers. Two shows are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, August 27 and 28 at 3 p.m. at Widow Jane, and three more at 8 p.m. on September 23, 24 and 25 at the Byrdcliffe Theater in Woodstock.
Composer and harpist Elizabeth Clark – a resident of Elizaville, but currently in an arts residency at Byrdcliffe – created this musical/theatrical/dance production in reaction to a terrifying nightmare on the eve of the 2016 election, while traveling to Canada with a group of Indigenous women elders. “I dreamed I was at a monastery playing my harp,” Clark told HV1 last year. “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 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 master class with Monk, the anxieties of the aftermath of the election and the desire to bridge the “intense division” between Americans somehow gelled in Clark’s head into a concept for an “Earth opera,” set in an underground post-apocalyptic environment. The “seeds” in the title refer to “the hope underneath the difficulty – to remember how connected we are to each other.”
Writing the ambitious opus had already taken five years, including a three-year Byrdcliffe residency, when last year’s nearly complete version was staged. But it appears that Seeds may be a work-in-progress for as long as Clark is around to work on it. “There’s a little bit more of the narrative that’s evolved. I think it’s the whole opera, but little bits keep coming. It’s evolving continually,” she reported to HV1 last week. “There is more of a storyline than I think I realized the first time through…[although] it doesn’t have to be linear, because it’s very dreamy.”
So, what new parts have been added? The monks from her nightmare have more to do now; in fact, there will be a “choreographed monk battle. It’s kind of scary.” The characters represent “prophets from four different places,” uttering apocalyptic warnings from the Hindu Srimad Bhagavatam, the Buddhist Kalachakra Tantra, the Christian Book of Revelation and the Anishinaabe Seventh Fire Prophecy. Other supernatural characters will include Jesus, Hanuman and Green Tara performing an ecstatic “Deity Waltz,” wearing illuminated hearts. Another addition was inspired by Clark’s memories of a relationship that she developed years ago with a homeless woman she calls St. Margaret of the Parking Lot, whose observations would invariably “shift my day.”
Not only has the cast of characters in Seeds under Nuclear Winter expanded, but also the roster of performers, musical as well as thespian. “There will be a lot more choir work, more voices,” says the composer. Besides the “world music pit orchestra” of Clark’s own ensemble Mamalama, Andes Manta and Catskill Mountain Gamelan, the musicians, actors and dancers this time around will include Peter Wetzler, Jaguar Mary X, Lisa Barnard Kelley, Sharon Penz, Noa Graham, Asa Graham-Lowengard, Phillip X. Levine, Elwin Cuevas, Eric Archer, Sondra Loring, Charlotte Stickles, Rusty Boris, Cornelia Logan, Bill Cochran, Annie Roland, Henry Lowengard, Dorcinda Knauth, Amy Recchia, Bill Brovold, AnnMarie Tedeschi, Erika McCarthy, Anne Arden McDonald and James Adelman. Choreography is by Sharon Penz and Clyde Forth, stage direction by Erika McCarthy and James Adelman, scenic design, props and costumes by artists too numerous to list.
Another new feature this year will be more extensive use of the natural features of the cave, including Widow Jane’s underground lake. The performance is mobile and interactive, involving some audience participation and inventive lighting effects. Attendees should note that the mine is chilly, regardless of the temperature outside, and condensation drips from the ceiling. So, you need to dress appropriately – and also bring your own folding chair.
“We got such a strong response last year. A lot of people were really moved…[they] talked abut it being a really healing experience,” says Clark. “In that space, it’s like that big womb. We’re inside the Earth together. It’s a community experience.”
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, mined nearby).
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-22. There’s also a suggested Donor price point at $31, and ongoing sponsors for continuing development and presentation of Clark’s work are always needed at www.patreon.com/mamalamamusic.
Tickets for the September 23 to 25 shows at the Byrdcliffe Theater cost $30 and can be ordered at www.woodstockguild.org/performance.