Opera and Medicine?

Not so far apart in a new one-woman show.

Flouting the conventional wisdom that says you can't have a serious day job and make art (to do both is a compromise, hence a failure), Hope Wechkin has found a unique way to combine the two. A doctor specializing in end-of-life medicine and overseeing a team of UW hospice nurses, Wechkin is also a singer, composer, and multi-instrumentalist. In her new solo opera, Charisma, she plays both a beleaguered patient and the visitors who come bearing advice. For Wechkin, performing—sharing the balm of art—is a natural next step from healing: "When I think of the audience, I think of this very individual relationship," she says. "It is not unlike the relationship I have with patients....Music is medicine, and they've always been related." Wechkin came to Seattle in 1990, after a childhood spent playing violin in Rochester, N.Y., and enrolled in the UW School of Medicine at the same time she began private voice study. "Really what I wanted to do was play the violin and sing at the same time," she says. "I was more of a frustrated singer-songwriter-guitarist chick who never learned to play the guitar." In 2004 she met psychotherapist Margaret Shafer, who later became her librettist. Shafer devised for her a magical-realist story line of a chronically ill woman, known only as the Narrator. As she lies bedridden, a poster of a Chagall painting, Blue Violinist, brought as a gift, launches dreams: Her first aria opens with an eloquent chant on one note with poignant violin harmonies underneath, but the vocal melody uncurls and begins to soar as she starts to imagine herself, like the figure in the painting, flying. A stream of characters pass by with unsolicited advice, some of whom encourage her flight while others keep her earthbound, including a self-infatuated doctor, a self-proclaimed shaman, a demented fellow patient, and a teenage girl succumbing to leukemia. Early on, Wechkin decided not to bring in other musicians: "My rule was [the show] has to be portable, it has to be cheap, and I have to be able to do all the instruments." Wechkin also plays mandolin, thumb piano, and an odd little instrument called "stir percussion," basically a small, handheld marimba. She also sings live with her own recorded voice, multitracked to create a choral sound—a sort of split-personality effect reflected in her composition process itself. Sometimes, she admits, "I looked at what I wrote with my composer hat on and thought, 'That's just too hard.' So then I have to have a talk with the 'composer' and have a little diva moment and say, 'I'm just not singing that!' And then she [the composer] relents and changes it." To make her collaboration with Shafer function on a stage, Wechkin asked UW drama professor Cathy Madden to direct the show and help her shape the material. "Theater has all these other requirements. So how to balance that need for movement with wanting to kind of bathe in the music and poetry—that's where the tension is," says Wechkin. "And there are some things cut as a result." In its fondness for evocative, dreamlike surrealism and disinclination toward linear narrative, Charisma has something in common with recent work by other local opera composers: Garrett Fisher, who in spacious, ritualistic theater pieces like The Passion of St. Thomas More or Stargazer (on the life of Galileo) examines the clash of the individual with power; Byron AuYong, who explores issues of ethnicity and cultural identity (an upcoming work draws on the story of Seung-Hui Cho, the fatally troubled Virginia Tech shooter); and Tom Baker, drawn to dark, folkloric tales—as in his upcoming Hunger, playing March 14–15, the imagined recollections of a member of the ill-fated Donner Party. Their work, though, draws a clearer distinction between singers and accompanists, and none has written so overtly for himself as the central figure in a piece. Wechkin's assumption of the presenter's role, not only the creator's, seems to tie in to her medical background: At the hospital, she says, "I've taken my violin and gotten the history and background of different patients, and then played based on their symptoms. It's not a performance, it's a delivery of medicine. There was this woman who was dying of respiratory failure, and she had a very fast respiratory rate—about 28, which is fast, and I took it down to 16. This is not imaginary woo-woo, it's real; this affects our physiology." gborchert@seattleweekly.com

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