Chorus Pro Musica's 'Audubon' Weaves Life And Death Of Famed Naturalist John James Audubon

Blue Jays by John James Audubon (Courtesy National Audubon Society)
Blue Jays by John James Audubon (Courtesy National Audubon Society)
This article is more than 2 years old.

They form a caravan like no other. They cross borders, traveling in huge numbers, seeking survival. They come for food and shelter. And when it suits them, they will leave.

Migrating birds also sing for us. They fill the woods with poetic colors and activity. And they inspire dreamers, artists and musicians, perhaps none more so than John James Audubon.

Chorus pro Musica’s upcoming world premiere of “Audubon,” an oratorio by James Kallembach, weaves a story about the famous 19th century naturalist and illustrator. Kallembach’s libretto resonates not only in our times — both for birds and for humans — but speaks deeply to the life of the complex man whose outsized “Birds of America” became an international bestseller.

CpM, directed by Jamie Kirsch, performs “Audubon” Friday evening at Jordan Hall. Baritone Sumner Thompson sings the title role, backed by a chorus of nearly 100 singers, with a chamber orchestra. Kathy Wittman of Ball Square Films has created video accompaniment to complement the semi-staged production.

Audubon’s life story is not easy to condense, not even with a concert-length program. “James has narrowed it into certain things,” Wittman says of the composer’s libretto, “but it’s still sweeping.”

Audubon was a jumble of ambition, artistry and miscalculations. Today, his name rightly evokes the foremost naturalist’s organization in the world, the Audubon Society. In real life, he was a multi-faceted artist, a man who tried and failed at multiple businesses, a wanderer who spent years isolated from his family.

He owned a lead mine, and then various stores. He built a flour mill. He hunted. He traded goods overseas. He moved all over the American wilderness, from Pennsylvania to Missouri to Kentucky. He prospered, and he went bankrupt. He spent years separated from his wife Lucy and his children, something Kallembach portrays vividly.

A pelican by John James Audubon from "The Birds of America" (Courtesy National Audubon Society)
A pelican by John James Audubon from "The Birds of America" (Courtesy National Audubon Society)

“This is such a huge undertaking for a small ensemble,” Wittman says of CpM. “It’s kind of breathtaking, and overwhelming. James’s music really captures the boundless size of the frontier, and of Audubon. There is nothing small about the person, or the story.”

His “Birds of America” venture — roaming the wild for specimens, creating the paintings and, most astonishingly, venturing to England to sell subscriptions for the expensive enterprise — became his lasting achievement. Still, it’s a creation mixed through with contradictions.

“What he did to the birds he loved, to create ‘Birds of America,’ is analogous to what he had to do to his family,” Kallembach says. “He had to sacrifice his relationship to his family, and he had to sacrifice his love of birds. In order to paint the birds, he had to kill tens of thousands of them. There is no way to observe and draw without killing. It’s the grotesque reality of natural history.”

Barn owl by John James Audubon (Courtesy National Audubon Society)
Barn owl by John James Audubon (Courtesy National Audubon Society)

Audubon studied the intricacies of taxidermy, in order to create his vivid, almost unnatural poses. He shot his subjects, situated them theatrically, pinned them with wire — then painted.

“He’s not just drawing these stuffed animals,” Kallembach says, “he posed them in an attitude. That’s his genius. His poses are evocative, and sometimes inaccurate. And he sold it all with tall tales from the frontier, sometimes ridiculous stories of his experiences in the wild.”

Kallembach’s libretto focuses on two periods. In the first act, we see Audubon leaving his family, portfolio in hand, sailing the Mississippi and then on to England to sell subscriptions. The second act captures him in England, playing the rogue, spinning tales of the American wilderness to bolster his sales pitch.

“At first I thought of it as a comic opera,” says Kallembach. “Not in an opera buffa sense, but in an ‘All’s well that ends well’ sense. His was a circular, but heroic trajectory. He resolves to make this ludicrous work of art, and also to go to Europe and sell this exotic view of America. In the end he realizes he has become estranged from his family, and he returns.”

Audubon is said to have returned to his family after seeing a band he placed on a bird that reminded him of his wedding ring.

The video accompaniment to the performance is more than simple catalog of the great illustrations, although there are plenty of those too. The challenge was how to represent Audobon's life without resorting to slideshow.

“This is not a history work,” Wittman says. “It’s an imaginative retelling, a Romantic take on this character. It’s storytelling, in an evocative way. I use video as scene setting; video can do the same thing as music, but with lighting and color.”

The music, which consists of lots of percussion and winds, naturally, evoking birdsong and the wild—should have immediate appeal. “It’s tonal, accessible, and extremely creative,” Kirsch says. “Long flowing lines, mixed with drama—it has everything. You could spend years with this score, but the audience will also get it right away.”

Chorus pro Musica, conducted by Jamie Kirsch, presents James Kallembach’s oratorio “Audubon,” with baritone Sumner Thompson singing the title role, on Friday, Nov. 9 in Jordan Hall. 


Keith Powers Twitter Classical Music Writer
Keith Powers is a classical music critic for The ARTery.