My piano teacher during high school, who dealt with my delusions and distracted sensibility, has been featured in the Wall Street Journal:
I call to the eye of the mind
A well long choked up and dry
And boughs long stripped by the wind,
And I call to the mind's eye
Pallor of an ivory face,
Its lofty dissolute air,
A man climbing up to a place
The salt sea wind has swept bare.
The opening lines of W.B. Yeats's 1916 play, "At the Hawk's Well," chanted by a trio of black-clad, white-masked singers last month here at the Chapel Performance Space, invoke the spirit of both the Japanese Noh drama that inspired its poet-playwright's tale—of a young man and old man in conflict at a magical well whose waters grant immortality—and the aesthetic of composer Garrett Fisher. His spare yet gripping new setting of the play draws its power from the mind's eye—the audience's imagination—as much as from his iridescent music.
Like his other musical dramas, Mr. Fisher's new one-act opera employs antique, often non-Western dramatic forms and musical influences to conjure an exotic atmosphere. His interest in other times and places was sparked early, when his professor parents took the family to Istanbul for a year, where they visited mosques and architectural sites. "Being an outsider in a separate culture probably made me attuned to the depth of tradition and beauty" in ancient cultures, he says. At Oberlin College, Mr. Fisher explored a wide range of traditions, from Shakespeare to Chinese opera. "I think this combination of influences inspired me to try to come up with my own theatrical form that also blended different media in an organic way," he says. "With theater that's very formalized, the audience is forced to sit forward in their seats, use their imagination, and become an engaged collaborator in the process," Mr. Fisher explains.
After he moved to Seattle in 1994, that city's renowned early-music scene drew Mr. Fisher toward medieval, Baroque and other pre-Classical sounds. He also took lessons in Indian vocal music and began playing the Indian harmonium. Most of his projects since then—including "The Passion of Saint Thomas More"; "Moon in the Bucket," based on a 14th-century Noh play; "Stargazer," about Galileo; and "Psyche," based on the Greek myth—rely on venerable musical and theatrical forms from Eastern and Western cultures as tools of expression.
Not that Mr. Fisher is averse to modern means. The 39-year-old composer is using the Internet to reach audiences. His opera "The Passion of Saint Sebastian" is part of a competition in which anyone can download the soundtrack and create a short Internet film based on any part of it. With little more than two weeks left until the March 31 deadline, 205 filmmakers have already signed up. And Mr. Fisher has begun to adapt his operas to the Web. "Videos of live performances are often flat and don't capture the magic," he admits, but Internet films allow visual artists to be creative and budget-minded; they become interpretations of the music which are different, but just as moving, as live performances, he said. "When embedded into a site on the Web, they explore new ways of experiencing music, visuals and stories. Also, it reflects our global age, where anyone with access to the Internet can take part in the creative process."
In the past 16 years, Mr. Fisher has created eight chamber operas and numerous other works, winning increasing attention and acclaim. Working consistently with a close-knit group—friends and family, including his dancer-choreographer sister, Christy; his mask-making godmother, Louise McCagg; and the New York-based dramaturg Ken Cerniglia—he allows other artists to contribute significantly to his productions, achieving a chemistry that encourages both efficiency and artistic risk-taking.
The entrepreneurial Mr. Fisher has managed to create a sustainable model for producing listener-friendly, multimedia musical dramas. He's formed a nonprofit organization and mastered the arcane art of garnering grants. And he's found a congenial if nontraditional venue in Seattle—the acoustically alluring Chapel, part of a former girls' reform school converted in 2007 into the city's most exciting wellspring of experimental performing arts.
"At the Hawk's Well," which The Fisher Ensemble will perform at Boston's Cathedral of St. Paul on March 17 and at New York's Judson Memorial Church on March 20, exemplifies Mr. Fisher's distilled method. Yeats's oblique text leaves ample space for the audience's imagination, as well as interpolated haiku from the poets Basho and Buson. "It was really a wonderful challenge for me to make the play work as an opera," Mr. Fisher recalls. "There's such a simplicity in his language, but as you delve into it, it's like a very deep lake you can't ever get to the bottom of, and that's what makes him such an amazing poet."
Mr. Fisher wisely chose not to fill in the blanks. The single set—three white cubes flanked by a pair of shadow screens—minimal props and costumes, and Ms. McCagg's eerie white masks presented a nearly blank slate, lightly decorated with spare brush strokes: a modified flute that evoked the Japanese shakuhachi; a haunting, six-string fretted acoustic bass guitar that sounded variously like a koto or an oud; a sighing harmonium; intermittent percussion. The instrumental parts pulsed with a spontaneity born of the players' partly improvised contributions. Ms. Fisher's birdlike dance postures resembled a hawk's flutterings. Minimal lighting cues used color to signal tone shifts; touches of shadow theater rendered the mood even more mysterious.
As the splendid vocal trio intoned Yeats's resonant poetry, accompanied by Mr. Fisher's intimate yet spacious sounds and judiciously placed silences, the bare-bones tale receded like the well's elusive contents, but it didn't matter. When the spectacle ended after less than an hour, I felt like I was waking from a dream whose meaning wasn't quite clear, but whose redolent beauty made elaboration or explanation superfluous.
Mr. Campbell covers West Coast performing arts for the Journal.