The music of flight: “Test Pilot” dance opera at the O’Shaughnessy

By Maggie Weiss

The story of how the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, first took to the skies on a cold December morning has been told and retold to young students throughout the world for over 100 years. Today, thousands of people board airplanes of all shapes and sizes, most of them taking for granted what was, only a century ago, brand new technology that many people believed would not even get off the ground.

Composer Jocelyn Hagen’s Test Pilot is the musical interpretation of the events surrounding the Wright Brothers’ controversial and historic flight. Described as a “chamber dance opera,” it shows us the scope of events leading to the world-famous flight through the eyes of Orville and Wilbur’s sister, Katharine, while also exploring the crossroads of human nature and creativity. The Sept. 12th weekend opening at the O’Shaughnessy Theater marked the opera’s world premiere.

“One of the main reasons Penny [Choreographer Penelope Freeh] and I were drawn to the subject of flight was because we each have relatives who were flyers themselves,” Hagen said in a blog post about the opera’s production. “My grandfather, Dr. Louis Theodore Hagen, Jr., was a navigator in World War II. Unfortunately I was never able to meet this extraordinary man. He died when my father was just 10 years old. But he was always somewhat of a legend in my family.”

Along with the achievements of the Wright Brothers, the production explores the careers of other flight pioneers, including female flying ace Amelia Earhart. The curtain opens on a chorus of five singing men dressed in black as they recite the “Pilot’s Alphabet” (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta…). After this lively musical number, the audience is introduced to Orville, Wilbur and Katharine Wright. The brothers are in the midst of designing what will become their amazing flying machine, a process which is showed through feats of interpretative dance and images projected onto a screen backdrop onstage.

At one point in the opera, the setting flashes forward to the time of World War II when airplanes were used for high-flying aerial battles between Allied and Axis powers. The five-man chorus takes center stage at this time, interrupting the narrative of the Wright Brothers; the chorus even dons leather flying caps and aviator goggles as they re-enact the struggles of World War II pilots for one particularly memorable number.

“I think in this moment Penny’s choreography really shines,” Hagen said. “The music and dance combine to form a truly heart-wrenching moment that continues to be emotional for me each time I watch it. From there we transition to an intimate song called “Silver Wing,” in which I set a text that was originally a song by folk singer/songwriter Marie-Lynn Hammond. She wrote it about her parents and their relationship before and after the war.”

Among the original documents shared with the audience, the original telegram that Orville and Wilbur send home after the completion of their first flight truly strikes a chord with the audience and brings home the fact that history has been made.

“I thought the performance was thought provoking and the music with choreography was superb,” said Molly Enter ’12. “The choreography and music were emotional and physical representations of how the mind thinks. It depicted the imaginative, mathematical, and scientific thought processes regarding the invention of flight. The piece also highlighted, through personal story, a few social implications of the invention of flight. Musically, the chorus numbers were my favorite.”

For more information on Test Pilot, please visit Jocelyn Hagen’s website at http://testpilotdanceopera.wordpress.com.

Maggie can be reached at maweiss@stkate.edu.

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