- Jeb Wallace-brodeur
- Dennis Báthory-Kitsz singing at his home studio in Northfield Falls
As horrifying as Donald Trump's utterances and tweets seem to many, each tends to fade from public memory as soon as a new one follows. Now a Vermont composer has created a musical reminder.
Some of the most offensive vocalizations from the president and members of his administration over the past two years form the text of a unique work: an oratorio. Goat Songs of the Regime of Monsters, by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz, will receive a single premiere performance at the Seven Stars Arts Center in Sharon on Saturday, November 2.
The libretto includes everything from Trump's "She's such a nasty woman" to Steve Bannon's "They need illegal aliens to fill the churches" to Melania Trump's "I don't really care, do u?"
Báthory-Kitsz admits that setting such language to music is "absurd" but says his horror at current circumstances drove him to it.
"It's just that, as a composer, what do you do? What kind of action can you take?" he says. "I decided I had to come up with an action through composing. I wondered, What would it sound like if I took the most outrageous quotes from this administration and put them together?"
He started by compiling 20,000 words' worth of utterances from the public statements of the president and first lady, Stephen Miller, Bannon, Kirstjen Nielsen, Stormy Daniels, Reince Priebus, Brett Kavanaugh, Jared Kushner, Betsy DeVos, Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Sanders, Steve Mnuchin and Mick Mulvaney. The composer eventually whittled these down to create six movements lasting approximately half an hour.
In the libretto, Báthory-Kitsz also has Hillary Clinton, Megyn Kelly, Maxine Waters, Carly Fiorina, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Chelsea Manning and Ghazala Khan singing Trump's insults back at him.
One movement is a duet in which Michelle Obama sings her speech from the 2008 Democratic convention and Melania Trump reads in monotone her plagiarized speech from the 2016 Republican convention. Ironically, given what he calls its "dispiriting" text, Báthory-Kitsz declares the movement "probably one of the most beautiful things I've ever written."
The oratorio opens with Trump and a chorus singing "in the manner of a Soviet march," according to the libretto, declaiming everything from "Make America Great Again" to "those shithole countries." The movement is also "Mozartian," the composer adds: Its chord progressions echo Mozart's in the "Confutatis" movement of the Requiem.
Goat Songs ends with Trump in a manic and unaccompanied spiral into madness "à la King Lear," the composer says, until the choir quietly sings, "Shoot them."
Báthory-Kitsz named the oratorio Goat Songs after an internet meme he liked, which cuts from videos of singers performing Mozart arias to goats seemingly singing the works. For the concert, he created a graphic that superimposes Trump's lips on a crazed-looking goat.
When he arrived in Vermont in 1978 at the age of 29, Báthory-Kitsz was already an experimental composer. He has created more than a thousand works by his count, including many featuring electronics or musical instruments of his own design. Over 10 years, he cohosted 540 episodes of "Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar," an online radio show in which he and fellow Vermont composer David Gunn interviewed new music makers. He also writes books, including a history of Vermont's country stores, published in 2008.
Despite being locally well known, Báthory-Kitsz had some trouble finding enough singers to perform Goat Songs, which he completed in early August. A Facebook post netted fewer responses than he had hoped for. But the composer completely understands. "Just imagine your typical classical singer who happens to lean left having to sing 'Shithole countries,'" he says.
Among the singers who responded are Megan Helm of Thetford, a voice teacher who is also board president and executive director of Seven Stars Arts Center. Helm will sing Donald Trump. Arielle King, a Vermont Law School student who lives in South Royalton, will sing Michelle Obama. Horn player and composer Lydia Lowery Busler will sing Melania Trump. Lisa Jablow, assistant conductor of the Vermont Philharmonic, who sang the leading role in Báthory-Kitsz's earlier opera Erzsébet, will perform as Stormy Daniels.
Helm says she was delighted to respond to Báthory-Kitsz's post, as well as to offer Seven Stars as a venue, even though she was unfamiliar with the composer.
"I volunteered [to sing Trump] because I have small hands," the alto singer jokes. (The part is scored for a countertenor, though the composer didn't expect to find one in Vermont.)
The work made perfect sense to her, Helm says. "I thought, Whoa, this is kind of weird and intense and right up my alley. It's a piece of new music that doesn't shy away from politics."
Helm describes the work as "atonal and rhythmically extremely difficult," as well as "funny in a late-night-host way." Nonetheless, she adds, the lyrics are "kind of jarring. I've had a hard time rehearsing because the text is so graphic [that] I have to check outside my studio door to make sure no kids are out there."
Helm, a fan of new music, sang works by Erik Nielsen at the Brookfield composer's performance event honoring his brother Lars last May. She says the time is right for Goat Songs.
"There's not enough out there in classical music that's shining a light on all this," Helm says. "This is an epic drama. It's nice to see someone with some courage come forth and say, 'We're going to do this.'"