An Autumn Soireé

A severed head in a pot of basil: Just another romantic journey with Divergence's haunted mind

A severed head in a pot of basil: Just another romantic journey with Divergence's haunted mind

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Photo by Kerry Beyer
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John White Alexander, Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1897, Gift of Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow, 1898 on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Courtesy of © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
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Alison Greene, soprano had an idea... Photo by Kerry Beyer
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...that shaped Divergence Vocal Theater's Autumn Soireé. Photo by Kerry Beyer
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With the help of stylist Serret Jensen and costume designer Kambriel, the gothic/Steampunk look for the show was created. Photo by Kerry Beyer
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Photo by Kerry Beyer
News_Divergence Vocal Theater_fall 2011 Soiree_Misha
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News_Divergence Vocal Theater_fall 2011 Soiree_Misha
News_Divergence Vocal Theater_fall 2011 Soiree_Misha
News_Divergence Vocal Theater_fall 2011 Soiree_Misha

Is there anything better than a juicy, tragic tale of unfilled love? It's the universality of the subject juxtaposed with our never-ending yearning for sultry, utopian romance — the kind that makes one swoon and toes curl — that renders works like Romeo and Juliet, Les Miserables and Tristan und Isolde immortal.

In the same genre and with a touch of nefarious creepiness, is the lesser-known story of Isabella and the Pot of Basil. A young woman promised to a noble man falls in love with Lorenzo, one of her brother's laborers. Her brothers then plot to murder Lorenzo and bury his body.

When a ghost appears to Isabella in a dream, she finds and exhumes the body and entombs his severed head in a pot of basil which she waters with her tears.

 Inspired by soprano and Divergence collaborator Alison GreeneAutumn Soireé can best be described as a series of spooky vignettes, a sort of haunted musical, puppetry, dance and literary evening. 

Isabella's origins stem from 14th century poet Giovanni Boccaccio's Il Decameron — a collection of 100 short love narratives from the naughty to the tragic —  and influenced the Pre-Raphaelite painters, inspired John Keats and served as the subject of a symphonic poem by British composer Frank Bridge.

Add Houston's artsy original subversive female to that list.

Misha Penton, soprano and artistic director of Divergence Vocal Theater, unearthed Isabella's story while ambling through the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston where the 1897 oil on canvass by American painter John White Alexander of Isabella and the Pot of Basil was on view. The tale of love-found, love-lost follows along subjects that have historically tickled the Divergence Diva and is now part of her upcoming collaborative vocal theatrical spectacle, Autumn Soireé, set for Friday and Saturday at Divergence Music & Arts at Spring Street Studios.

"Isabella," composed by James Norman and set to Penton's original lyrics, will have its world premiere as one of the chansons that make up one haunted program.

"With some text, it is especially important to convey words and narrative. With Misha's poem, the emphasis lies in the emotion and mood," Norman explains. "Although, as evocative as her poems are emotionally, Misha is precise in her language, and almost never garrulous."

An excerpt from her text reads:

Isabella with your crazed lament
with such lush basil about you went
and you watered him with threnodies.
Oh, your lover's darkened curls
and you carried him in terra cotta
as about you all the constellations whirled.

"It made sense that the vocal line shouldn't be especially florid," Norman adds. "Ornamentation would only obscure the sorrow of her character.  However, there is great drama in the text, and the musical accompaniment felt like the logical place for its development. For example, to enhance the sense of drama and the threnodial tone, the music slowly and subtly descends from the top of range of the piano to the bottom over the course of the piece. 

"And as the song comes to an end, the music, in its most stripped down and basic form, is extended to only the outer most registers of the piano chiming distantly, with almost funereal inevitability."

For a Haunted Season

Inspired by soprano and Divergence Vocal Theater collaborator Alison GreeneAutumn Soireé can best be described as a series of spooky vignettes, a sort of haunted musical, puppetry, dance and literary evening with a nod to the theme without being so objective. While working on the production, it was the combination of serious music set in a light, tongue-in-cheek fashion that naturally morphed into a gothic, somewhat nostalgic aesthetic.

"I became obsessed with 19th century gothic and as my love for art directing grew, which started with my April production of Klytemnestra, I wanted to find a way to idealize the theme for the soiree," Penton says. "With the help of costume designer Kambriel and wig artist/stylist Serret Jensen, Victorian garments took on a Steampunk look."

The sequence of vignettes mingles French art songs by Henri Duparc, Gabriel Faure and arias from Donizetti's Anna Bolena — which seems to be in the art scene's zeitgeist. It's not one of the composer's popular works, though it's being staged by Opera in the Heights in January, is currently running at The Metropolitan Opera through February and will be broadcast Saturday, with an encore on Nov. 2, as part of The Met: live in HD series.

Unlike DVT's Selkie, A Sea Tale and Klytemnestra, this artsy ofrenda is not a throughly-composed, single-work performance but rather conjures up a very successful company model that began with Autumn Spectre in 2009. Drawing on Penton's collaborator's strengths and artistic whims, Autumn Soireé is the collective vision of a close circle of creatives that over the years, have earned the artistic director's trust. 

That also includes Houston-based, University of Houston-graduate composer George Heathco, who is responsible for weaving the evening with an original work scored for electric guitar, piano and tabla. It's played by Mini Timmaraju in between the vignettes and underneath poetry readings. 

"There are actually two ideas that I use throughout the entire performance: one fairly improvisational and the other much more composed," Heathco says. "The first idea grew from a single single three-note motive that I had, more or less, lifted from Duparc's Elegy, which Misha sings during the show.

"To disguise it, I had a major nerd moment one evening and treated the three notes to a heavy dose of 20th century modernism. To go one step further I felt I would try to make things like 'tri-chordal combinatoriality' cool and hip by playing it in the improvisatory style of 1940s Delta Blues, complete with slide guitar. The second idea is a somewhat typical descending-step Chaconne theme, used in a fairly atypical manner, as an upper voice as opposed to the lower voice.

"Because petty theft is often a trademark of cool compositional creativity, to paraphrase Stravinsky, I took a cue from the melody of Harris Weston's 'With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm,' which is sung by Alison about two-thirds of the way through the show."

Autumn Soireé also includes dancer Meg Brooker, actor Jon Harvey, puppetry by Kelly Switzer, lighting design by Frank Vela and pianist Jeremy Wood. 

What sounds like an elaborate evening is possible because of DVT's business model. Working on a fiscal sponsorship structure, Penton keeps the production costs minimal so that ticket sales account for a larger percentage of the revenue whereas in larger nonprofits, earned income has been tracked at roughly 50 percent. For DVT, audience development is critical.

"My overall mission is to turn people on to music that they may be unfamiliar with," Penton says. "I want my guests to listen to music in a new way whether they are classical fans or not. I want to share that passion with my audiences." 

Divergence Vocal Theater's Autumn Soireé is set for Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at Divergence Music & Arts at Spring Street Studios. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased online or with cash/check at the door.