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Review: ‘Hear America Singing’ the Emotions and Memories of Creating Love and Art

By YVONNE HUDSON

Daron Hagen’s “I Hear America Singing” serves up multiple treats for audiences that love singers, intimate performances, and music with a distinctively American flavor. Playing for one more night tonight at 8 pm in the University of Pittsburgh’s Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre).

Daron Hagen

The 75-minute piece showcases three of our region’s outstanding singers—all teachers and leaders in music in Western Pennsylvania. Singers who act, actors who sing, and the cast display the stuff of life-long training and exploration of diverse music and theatrical genres. This stellar trio shares their collective and individual ranges through Hagen’s diverse score, almost entirely accompanied by Robert Frankenberry at the piano. The setting? In the 1990s, composer Robbie Doerfler’s bachelor apartment on New York City’s Upper Westside and a black box theatre, real or imagined. A piano, a few chairs, a trunk, and a theatre ghost light share the stage with the cast.

Robert FrankenberryDesiree Soteres, and Christopher Scott present a tour de force with Hagen’s nonstop score of 20 songs. The title evokes Walt Whitman and the career journey of character Robbie Doerfler (Frankenberry), who is leading his Juilliard classmates in rehearsals to revive his 20-year-old musical. 

Christopher Scott

The emotions, memories, and doubts flow when the trio reunites and sings (up to eight full cast numbers). The impending backer’s audition seems the least of it as these old friends mine their lives and relationships through the songs that might comprise a new production. 

Rose (Soteres) and Roger (Scott) consider what they lost, found, and retained in their former marriage. They reconsider themselves in songs such as “Remember How It Was?”, “The Let Us Song,” “When I was Single,” and “Fall Down“. Bittersweet and beautiful, it’s the stuff of relationships and finding a context for something passed that was indeed once fresh and immediate.

Soteres shines in her characterization and three solos. Her sweet soprano finds a range of spunky resilience to vulnerability. How wonderful to see her featured in this exciting role!

Desiree Soteres

Scott is a strong presence with an impressive range as an actor and singer. He shines on three solos and the five compelling duets with Soteres. The acapella and percussive “To Beat Time” are strong and engaging at the point when something different musically is just right.

Clips from the projects rushes provide teasers of the future film. Here are Soteres accompanied by Frankenberry and Scott’s rhythmic acappella piece.

You are correct if you sense that this piece is intensely sung, but the story is indeed told with conversations, shared memories, jabs, and jokes among the three friends. The cohesiveness of Hagan’s book, lyrics, and music serves the story well. He’s a masterful writer and musician. Here, his music evokes the American canon: traditional hymns, ballads, love songs, story songs, and patriotic. The songs themselves could be a stand-alone recital, from art songs to arias and other popular forms. Considering the score alone, the show is a testament to how a composer learns and applies their own experiences of life and others’ music. Some beautiful American melodies are referenced with nuance in this lovely study about songwriting and singing.

Robert Frankenberry conducted Daron Hagen’s opera Shining Brow at  Fallingwater for Pittsburgh Festival Opera in 2013.
Photo by Yvonne Hudson

It’s a happy coincidence that the revival performance of this piece was given on May 9, 2014. A decade later, Robert Frankenberry again displays his Mozartian talent in his “I Believe in Song“ and throughout the show. At the piano, as Robbie, the composer, and Robert, the music director, he does it all. And he did this all in 2014 for that even more extended version of this work in development.

Robert Frankenberry

At the show’s conclusion, Robbie reflects on the realities composers face. Works that survive in print may have minimal lives on stage. Frankenberry’s final monologue about this journey is captured for the film. What’s it all for? Taking the ride—hang on!

Now, is it profound that this show is performed in the place where students experiment and thrive, the Cathedral of Learning’s base (basement)? The restored space deserves this special project, which will include a film, a documentary, a cast recording, and a live performance this weekend. 

Hagen has said he likes to write songs that are “challenging but not impossible to sing.”  His imaginative projects predict the legacy of his works. His “Shining Brow” was performed (with Frankenberry conducting) by the Pittsburgh Festival Opera at Fallingwater and in Oakland. Hagen is leading the genre he called “opera film” with his “Orson Rehearsed” and “9/10: Love Before the Fall”. The films are receiving laurels at multiple festivals; we hope to see them soon!

Bravo, Daron, for sustaining this century’s canon of American song and American music. Singers will indeed appreciate your compelling poetry and melodies.

Explore Daron Hagen’s work online and watch for film screening dates.

Hagen answers a few question about writing songs here:

TICKETS AND DETAILS

There is one remaining performance on Saturday May 11th at 8 pm in the University of Pittsburgh’s Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre), Aria412 presents this New Mercury Collective production of Hagen’s opera. Tickets are $25 for general seating.