Selkie, a sea tale

On the record: Inside Misha Penton's new chamber music work — and her tryst with film

On the record: Inside Misha Penton's new chamber music work

Divergence Vocal Theater Selkie CD release, March 2013, Misha-Selkie
A CD release concert for Misha Penton's collaboration with composer Elliot Cole that resulted in Selkie, a sea tale is set for 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 4411 Montrose Blvd. Photo by Raul Cesares/Dave Nickerson
Divergence Vocal Theater Selkie CD release, March 2013, Misha-Selkie
The performance also debut Misha Penton's inaugural tryst with music video, a genre she plans to explore further alongside more commissions and cross-disciplinary, multimedia productions. Photo by Raul Cesares/Dave Nickerson
Divergence Vocal Theater Selkie CD release, March 2013, Misha-Selkie
Selkie, a sea tale was her company's first original work. Photo by Raul Cesares/Dave Nickerson
Divergence Vocal Theater Selkie CD release, March 2013, Kyle Evans, Misha Penton, Patrick Moore, background, Todd Hulslander
Kyle Evans, in forground, Misha Penton, Patrick Moore and Todd Hulslander, background Photo by Shannon Langman Smith
Divergence Vocal Theater Selkie CD release, March 2013, Misha-Selkie
Divergence Vocal Theater Selkie CD release, March 2013, Misha-Selkie
Divergence Vocal Theater Selkie CD release, March 2013, Misha-Selkie
Divergence Vocal Theater Selkie CD release, March 2013, Kyle Evans, Misha Penton, Patrick Moore, background, Todd Hulslander

Soprano Misha Penton, the enterprising Houston-based theatrical diva with a reputation of skipping along to her own tune, was faced with a difficult decision after she fulfilled her dream of opening her own performance hall at Spring Street Studios — a "to be or not to be" dilemma of sorts.

"If your dreams don't scare you, they are not big enough," Penton quips.

When the daily operations required to manage a venue fringed on her creative time, it was time to refocus and bid adieu to Divergence Music & Arts, the space, and welcome back Divergence Vocal Theater, the company. 

That decision turned out to be a good one.

Stepping out of her comfort zone, Penton's acquired freedom sailed away from the physical concert hall to reel into fantasy film. She's going on the record, literally and visually.

 Having both my first recording and my first music video — different manifestation of the same creative output — brings a sense of completeness to this journey

CD release concert for Penton's collaboration with composer Elliot Cole that resulted in Selkie, a sea tale, set for 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 4411 Montrose Blvd., will also debut Penton's inaugural tryst with music video, a genre she plans to explore further alongside more commissions and cross-disciplinary, multimedia productions.

"Championing young composers is at the forefront of my practice," Penton says. "One of the ways to do that is not only to perform, but to record their work in different formats. Having both my first recording and my first music video — different manifestations of the same creative output — brings a sense of completeness to this journey."

Selkie, a sea tale was her company's first original work. Cole set Penton's poetry such that the score dialogued synergistically with her imagistic, colorful text to sketch a series of Neo Romantic, seaside tableaux. The story is rooted in Faroese, Icelandic, Irish and Scottish lore, the origins of the mermaid-like selkie, a half-human, half-seal living being who can shed its skin to reveal a humanized form — but only for a short period of time. These anthropomorphs belong amid the frigid ocean waters.

The premiere of the gesamtkunstwerk in 2010 was sold out, standing room only. Costumes by Sarah Mosher and Serret Jensen; set, media and lighting design by Megan M. Reilly and David A. Brown; and choreography by Meg Brooker transformed a black box theater into an evocative environment fitting for themes of sensuality, eroticism, desire and love found and lost. 

But Cole's compositional style stands on its own. Indulgent French sonorities, thick textures and pliable phrases breathe poignancy to the lustful peaks, squeezing emotional substance from abstract and concrete allusions to ominous oceans, strong winds and the anxiety from restless, loveless nights.

Laying down tracks

The music's narrative quality and the original production's visual impact rendered Selkie, a sea tale a flexible oeuvre to test the waters with audio recording in addition to a separate video component.

 "Theatrical elements create an environment that wraps around everyone who's sharing in the experience so that we can all be inside art rather than watching art from afar."

Beginning in January of 2011, the audio recording project took roughly one year. Working alongside recording engineer Todd Hulslander of KUHF, cellist Patrick Moore, pianist Kyle Evans and violist Meredith Harris, Penton's hope was to produce an album that retained the energy of a performance while at the same time capturing the finesse of a mastered studio recording.

"Recording is fun because you don't have the pressure of performance, but it's a different art and science," she says.

Other than a few small tweaks, the music hasn't change much since its premiere. There's a bonus track that reprises a portion of the original score. As "Softly over sounding waves" was the first aria Cole penned for Selkie, it became the foundation from which the whole piece expanded. This new version is in a different key with slightly altered instrumentation.

Listen to "Softly over sounding waves" here:

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Divergence on film

It was critical that the video was shot during winter in the Pacific Northwest, particularly as the work's subject was mused from a trip to Vancouver Island. Penton sought to seize the natural, raw intensity of the ocean's tumultuous waters — and no other setting would do.

"There's something about the region that's super charged with elemental energy that permeates your whole being," she says. "The ebullience draws me in and makes me think that being swept into it to become one with it wouldn't be such a bad idea — as fatal as it may be."

She found that tone in the Oregon coast. The only respite from the intense, three-day production schedule with her cameraman husband Dave Nickerson and director of photography Raul Casares were restful nights in a cabin near Cannon Beach

"Video allows me to have the immersive environment of performance," Penton explains. "These theatrical elements aren't icing on the cake.

"They create an environment that wraps around everyone who's sharing in the experience so that we can all be inside art rather than watching art from afar."

Listen to "When you came ashore" below:

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Divergence Vocal Theater presents a CD Release Concert: Selkie, a sea tale on Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., at 4411 Montrose Blvd. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door, and can be purchased online. The video will be available on CultureMap next week.