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Island Life Exposed in ‘Riders to the Sea’

Ralph Vaughan Williams' one-act opera gets UCSB Opera Theatre's full attention.

The UCSB Opera Theatre, under the direction of Steven Kronauer, will offer a production of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ one-act opera, Riders to the Sea, at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and at 2 p.m. Saturday in Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall. The opera will be sung by students of the UCSB Voice Program, to piano accompaniment by Chiacheng Naomi Sen. The work will be fully staged, with sets and lighting by Mark Somerfield.

There are few works of art whose history and evolution are so clearly charted as this opera, Vaughan Williams’ masterpiece in the form.

In 1895, the 24-year-old Irish writer John Millington Synge traveled to Paris to study literary criticism. There he met a fellow Irishman, the poet William Butler Yeats, who said to him, “If I were you, I would go to live in the Aran Islands (off the West coast of Ireland) for a time. That’s where the real Irish are.”

Although in chronic poor health and already in the early stages of the Hodgkin’s disease that would kill him just shy of his 38th birthday, Synge left for the islands almost immediately. He wound up spending the better part of five years on those barren wind-swept rocks, which are pummeled constantly by a savage sea rolling nonstop from Iceland and inhabited by a race of stoic fisher folk of unbelievable heartiness.{mosimage}

Synge’s experiences on the Arans became the capital of his writing career. Not only did the book drawn from his Aran journals turn out to be one of the glories of documentary English prose, but the stark, passionate personalities of the islanders dominate the casts of all his great plays, especially his two masterpieces, the expansive, scandalous comedy, The Playboy of the Western World, and the intense, compact tragedy Riders to the Sea — the latter set on “An island off the West of Ireland.”

In 1927, Vaughan Williams completed the score of his opera based on Synge’s play, but it was not given its first performance until 10 years later. The subject combines many of the composer’s enduring obsessions, including folk culture — he and composer Gustav Holst had spent many seasons collecting folk songs of the British Isles — and the power of nature, particularly the sea. His first symphony, premiered in 1910, is known as The Sea and is a gigantic setting of the sea poems in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Vaughan Williams turned again to the tragic collision of man and nature in his Symphony No. 7, the Antarctica, which was based on his score for the motion picture, Scott of the Antarctic.

Admission to the opera is $15 general admission, and $7 for students, with tickets sold at the door.

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