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‘If a Picture Never Lies’: A Thesis Sung By a Tenor

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It’s half past seven on Feb. 25. The flow of the audience has slowed to a trickle, the seats of the dimly lit Adams Pool Theater almost fully occupied. A quartet is waiting in the corner of the stage, and the singers are about to emerge. The scene is set: “If a Picture Never Lies,” a new chamber opera adapting Virgil’s “Bucolics” written and scored by Harry A. Sage ’22, is about to begin.

It becomes apparent after just a few minutes that this picture indeed doesn’t lie. But it doesn’t tell the whole truth, either. The double-spaced lines might have been replaced by five-line staves and chapters by the three acts of the libretto, but underneath the chamber opera hides a senior thesis in Classics and Music.

Writing a thirty minute score entirely on your own is a daunting task in itself. Translating a two-thousand-year-old text written by one of Rome’s greatest poets into English on top of that doesn’t make it any easier. Nevertheless, Sage has taken the challenge head-on, driven by his deep interest in the two fields. “From middle and high school I knew that composition was the direction with the music that I wanted to go in and [I] had a love of Latin literature,” he said.

Bucolics as a genre depict an idealized, simple life of tranquility and abundance provided by nature. Sage initially intended for his adaptation to focus on this stereotypical depiction of the countryside and “how that reflects on people outside.” But after he dove deeply into the texts of the poems and looked for what he thought to be their core message, the project ended up taking a different direction. Sage decided on a three act structure, in which an initial idylla gives way to conflict. “It's no longer about the space as a literary device in a cultural identity, more this … mental space that defines us as people and how we process our lives with the culture,” he said. “I wanted to tell the story of this sort of gradual disruption of this ideal space.”

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But Latin is easier to translate into English than poetry onto stage, and the meaning — despite the structure in place — could still easily be lost on the audience if appropriate care isn’t taken to ensure that the score closely and constantly reinforces the message.

Sage set out to accomplish this through devices such as repetition. To make the singing easier to understand, key lines are repeated and made into “musical refrain.” Sage relies on parallels to similar effect. Narratively, the third act peels back the veil of happiness present in the first act. “It was natural that I would take the themes from the first and make them unsettled harmonically, make them more rhythmically intense,” he says. The end result is music that not only sounds like the space, but also makes it clear how the space evolves.

While he might have handled the writing and scoring, it was only “the first stage of the process.”

“I could just hand a score to the Music Department and have them evaluate me, the composer, based on that. No problem,” he said “But this is the Classics department. You kind of need to be able to see this, don't you?” And no matter the passion, a composer and librettist cannot possibly stage an opera on their own. Especially not in three months.

“Harry approached me during Thanksgiving break and asked me if I would produce his thesis and immediately I was incredibly excited,” said Eleanor M. Powell ’25, who shortly assumed the role of the opera’s Executive Producer. “Working with the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players you already have a board, you already have patrons. There's all of this built in institutional support that we didn't necessarily have immediately on this production.”

The two persevered and fortunately, both friends and the Department of Classics rose to the occasion. “I think one of the things that makes this production so special is just the amount of Classics concentrators and prospective concentrators,” Powell said. Ivor K. Zimmerman ’23, the president of the Classics Club seems to share the sentiment. “That’s the dream … to see something so old like the Classics to be revitalized, and to be able to play even a minor part in that,” he said.

A chamber opera is certainly not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of a senior thesis. But as Harry Sage shows, the two can go hand in hand.

—Staff writer Zachary J. Lech can be reached at zachary.lech@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @zacharylech.

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