Jeremy Smith: “The Call”
Composer Jeremy Smith has just come out with his first foray into the operatic genre with The Call, a short drama that takes inspiration from Albert Camus’ novel The Fall. Although this piece can be performed in a traditional concert setting, Smith has created a performance specifically for YouTube that can be viewed here. Smith is a recent graduate of Middle Tennessee State University where he studied with Dr. Paul Osterfield and in the fall is headed to University of Alabama to begin his Doctoral studies in Theory and Composition.
One first note before digging into the work itself. During the previous 18 months of Covid-induced lockdowns it seems as if many performing arts organizations have discovered the internet for the first time. Performers and groups scrambled to convert their performances into a digital medium and frequently created videos that were uninspired, amateurish, and quite boring. In the Covid era of digital offerings, The Call is a shining example of things gone right. Smith, along with Continuous Motion Productions have created a video that is tailored to a video streaming service. More on the videography later.
The Call is a monologue centered around an unnamed protagonist, sung by tenor Charles M. Anderson. The protagonist makes an inebriated phone call to an old friend. Under the pretense of “catching up” the protagonist begins to reminisce about their past friendship which eventually devolves into a tirade against life and God. The music is flexible and unobtrusive which allows the text and vocal lines to lead the way.
The opening scene of the video shows the protagonist buying a six pack on a peaceful afternoon with bells tolling in the background. Smith’s music begins with big chords mimicking the tolling bells over a rhythmic bass propelling us into the busy thoughts of the protagonist. The scene changes to night; the protagonist has imbibed several Bud Lights. With enough liquid courage he calls his friend. This friend is shown on camera but is not ever shown speaking. The protagonist’s first line is: “Hey, are you still up? Nothing is wrong, I just wanted to chat.” Eventually his friend knows that something is up before the music cuts out completely just leaving the protagonist to lie: “Drunk? No, no no! I’ve only had a couple.”
Quickly trying to change the subject, the protagonist moves to small talk asking about his friend’s wife, kids, and new job. Smith sets this text to a hurried mixed meter. At this point, the thought that the protagonist has some self-destructive thoughts began to enter my head. The asymmetrical music highlighted the protagonists’ dissatisfaction with what he was hearing. Hearing of his friend’s success does not subdue his feelings so he steers the conversation towards the glory days of their friendship. “We would toast to the sunrise with the bottom of a bottle. We were ten foot tall and bullet proof” says he. “What happened? Maybe that’s just how life goes.” The jealousy really sets in as he adds a bitter “for some of us…” after that. Smith wisely allows the dissonance of the music to symbolize the growing dissonance between their two different lives.
From the beginning of this phone call the protagonist has been transparent on the real purpose of the phone call. After attempting to catch up and make some small talk the protagonist finally expresses his doubts that life has a plan and that “everything will work out.” He boldly declares: “As a matter of fact, I’ve got a theory. This is what I think: there is no plan. And if there is, it’s not a very good one.”
Growing tired of the protagonist’s ramblings, his friend puts the phone down and reads a book while the protagonist spills his guts. He mentions that maybe the protagonist should pray about it. Taking him up on his offer, the protagonist begins a half-hearted attempt at the Lord’s Prayer: “Oh God, who art in heaven, how could you lead me astray? Give me the strength dear lord to end it now.” The music is getting increasingly tense throughout this bungled prayer. At the climax of this moment the protagonist cries: “God damn you, God! Amen.”
One of my favorite musical moments happens on the words “Amen.” Throughout the religious diatribe Smith has not let any of the music stabilize. Extended harmonies are used throughout, meter changes happen almost every bar, and tonal centers are established and abandoned at ease. On the syllable “a” of the aforementioned “amen” the harmony comes to a rest on an A major chord before abruptly shifting to E major. This plagal (or ‘amen’) cadence is turned on its head. Usually, a cadence will solidify the tonal center of the music, but this one destabilizes the music further. The final line of the opera comes next: “Hello? Hello? Hey, are you still there?” Is the protagonist talking to his friend or God?
The Call’s main strength is its overall cohesion. The music, libretto, and cinematography combine to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. For example, the libretto, written by Shane Wilson, is masterfully written to give us multiple pieces of information from a simple line. Take the opening piece of text: “Hey, are you still up? Nothing is wrong, I just wanted to chat.” Combined with the music this small line tells us multiple things. It is late and something is definitely bothering our protagonist. With each word being precious in an opera the strength of the libretto to help the story cannot be underestimated. Another example comes from the cinematography. Throughout the ten-minute piece there is a clear dichotomy between the world that the protagonist inhabits and the world that his friend inhabits. The protagonist is shown in a dark dingy apartment surrounded by emptied bottles and cans. His friend is reading a book by lamplight with an unopened bottle of wine by the window. Small details like this add an immense amount to the overall product.
Jeremy Smith’s score ties it all together nicely. The music is rhythmic and powerful throughout, switching between the various emotions being expressed. Each scene has an appropriate motif that accompanies the protagonist’s wide-ranging states of mind from nervous small talk, to outbursts against religion. Although strained at times, overall, Charles Anderson’s voice is strong and clear throughout. His expressive acting adds dimension and depth to the character. Richard Blumenthal, the pianist on the recording, does a superior job of navigating his way through the tricky score. This leaves me tremendously excited to see what Smith’s next operatic project will be.