The World of The Selkies
I cannot accurately remember at what point or for how long I was obsessed with Sea Monkeys as a child. Brilliantly marketed, somehow, I always thought these rather mundane brine shrimp would turn out to be something.
At least the picture in the box promised so, teasing me with a happy regal couple with big smiles and no life troubles whatsoever.
I believed it. And today, not much has changed. I am gullible, although I tend to describe it more as having a curious mind that does not dismiss the incredulous.
I am certain that most people lured by things they cannot readily explain or when faced with open-ended occurrences swim in tangents creating fantastical stories, fabricating characters and developing complex plots.
It’s a fun way of rationalizing. And in that continuum, a myth, a tale, even art can be born.
Inspired by a seal
It was during a recent trip to British Columbia that Misha Penton, artistic director of Divergence Vocal Theater (DVT), was teased by magnificent surroundings, somewhere in between the ocean and the rough mountain terrain.
DVT, since its inception in 2008, has earned a reputation in Houston for defying traditional opera performance by fusing operatic excerpts and art songs with other art disciplines and new media. The term “vocal theater” was inspired by the desire to have the name encompass a range of creative, opera-based work, and to evoke curiosity.
The company's latest work, its first original work — Selkie, a Sea Tale — will be performed Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at Obsidian Arts Space. This is the piece that came out of Penton's Canadian moment.
“I am obsessed with Vancouver Island,” Penton says. “It is this beautiful edge of the earth with a temperate rain forest. We had gone out on a hike to the shore. You need to be careful because you can be swept off the rocks.”
Encountering a taunting and flirtatious seal, the sensory experience propelled her into a journey that would start with a narrative poem:
"Softly over sounding autumn waves you sail
The scent of your neck against my face a memory
Of seastars, anemone and shell gathered mornings
Ocean strand rainforest moss chills our hands — so lightly touching
We climb marine granite toward an osprey pine aerie
A seal bobs her beckoning head for us:
Seduction to dash our bodies
Against deceptive stone and join her in the fearless sea"
It then finished with the creation of DVT’s first completely original work including text, music, set and costumes: Selkie, a Sea Tale.
Fairy tales and seal creatures: Selkies
“I have always been interested in fairy tales and fables,” Penton explains. “My poem is sort of a dream, monologue or nonlinear telling of a love of your life that is lost. Evocative of longing and desire, I am hoping to summon the thing that’s intangible. That which you would give anything to have. A story of remembrance, if you will.”
“This sounds like a mixture of naughty eroticism and sensual romanticism,” I respond, chuckling with immaturity.
“It certainly is,” Penton agrees.
A Selkie is a half-human and half-seal mystical being found in Faroese, Icelandic, Irish and Scottish folklore. Not unlike mermaids, Selkies can shed their sealskin to expose their human alter ego, but only for a short period before they must return to sea.
“As an homage for taking something, what was hunted became sacred,” Penton says.
Most tales about Selkies are romantic tragedies where traditionally, a fisherman steals the disrobed skin of a female Selkie, a conquest ending in marriage.
Sounds exotically sexy.
In some stories, the Selkie finds her skin and returns to sea with the children, leaving the fisherman behind.
Once the text was written, it traveled from Penton's hands into Elliot Cole’s, whose task was to find a compositional style for Penton’s imagistic approach.
“Setting text is always hard work,” Cole says. “Music has needs, text has needs, and you have to wrestle with them into a compromise that expresses both. That tension, though, is creative energy, a real live wire.
"Her lyrics kept me exploring beyond the obvious solutions. They always prompted the music to grow in unexpected and wonderful ways.”
Penton enjoys working in an honest collaborative style with those that share congruous artistic visions. For some, working in this environment may feel a little wild and unusual.
“I don’t want to give too much direction initially. I like to shape the collaborative process,” Penton explains. “I want to avoid imposing my ideas on others and encourage the artists with whom I collaborate to contribute their own impressions. It’s a balancing act that takes practice. Practice working with people, so at the convergence, all the elements come together cohesively.”
Cole’s music evokes the story’s unique setting including dark oceans, storms, dreams, sleepless nights and shifting tides of longing.
“I immersed myself in late romantic decadence,” Cole explains. “Huge climaxes, overripe French harmony, thick piano writing, lots of dreamy push-and-pull of time and a fixation on always reaching for the juiciest note, for an orchestra of two: piano and cello. But I've tried to push their sound to the limits.”
Putting it together
Selkie, a Sea Tale is written for two sopranos, two actors and a dancer where the Selkie, in this case male, is actually not present but rather implied and alluded to by other elements.
One of those elements, is David A. Brown’s environmental set design.
“After talking with Misha, I abstracted and reduced our ideas into simple forms that are interchangeable,” Brown says. “The texture of the forms will shift and change during the production with lighting and projections with water and ice as the main theme.”
Using steel, shrink wrap and projections, Brown aimed to work with simple and minimal materials to support and contrast the text.
“The biggest challenge was to find a balance between all of the brainstorming ideas,” Brown recalls. “It was great to be back in the studio again, but it took a lot longer than I anticipated.”
Unlike most art presenters of DVT’s size, for Penton, this is definitely not a one-time performance. With plans to produce an audio recording, the relationship with the specific artists participating in Selkie is ongoing.
“I am interested in developing long-term working relationships with a core group of artists,” Penton says. The identity of DVT will emerge from the curated group at her hands, allowing art making to happen with freedom and spontaneity.
Will Selkie, a Sea Tale make me a believer?
I am one already. Then again, I am easy.
"Art and About" with Divergence Vocal Theater: