Greed, sloth, lust: 'Seven sins' gain theatrical appeal

They've inspired clerics and ice-cream makers, artists and scholars - and now the seven deadly sins are being molded by a group of contemporary composers.

Envy, vanity, and the other marquee vices (lust, greed, gluttony, anger, and sloth) are the focus of a new collection of songs, "The Seven Deadly Sins," debuting at Carnegie Hall next week.

Written for soprano/actress Audra McDonald and a sextet of musicians, the pieces draw on a range of genres including jazz, country-and-western, and classical. Some of them are as dark as a 20th-century musical work on the "deadlies" from the dramatist/composer team of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. But several of the new songs treat their respective sins with humor. One piece - on sloth - even invites audience participation.

Variety of tone is what the concert's musical director and pianist, Ted Sperling, had hoped for when he and Ms. McDonald settled on the deadly sins as an organizing theme. Interpreting the sins offered artistic freedom to the commissioned writers, and a chance to showcase McDonald's theatrical side, including "a real sense of playfulness and fun and wickedness," he says in an interview.

"In many ways, those sins, they're deadly, but they're also something that we struggle with every day to greater or lesser degrees," he says, explaining another reason for the choice: universal recognition.

Blending seven pieces that were each crafted separately by composers and lyricists into one seamless song cycle is complicated. (The pieces - just a few minutes long - were mostly written in a month or less, when a previously scheduled new work dropped out.) But McDonald is a good candidate to pull it off, according to at least one of the participants.

"It could be a huge mess, but we know because of her, she'll make it work, because of her talent and personality," says composer Jake Heggie, who has taken a humorous approach to his assigned sin: vanity.

To find a modern voice for their works, the writers drew on sources as varied as the Internet and their own experiences. Ricky Ian Gordon kept a journal documenting how he felt about envy and everything he felt envious of, for example. He then worked on honing that down to something more universal that McDonald could convey to an audience.

"I was taking all these notes, and all of a sudden I realized that envy felt like an actual character inside of me," he explains. "...it was like I was staring down this thing in me, and suddenly it was like envy started talking."

Older works on the sins, such as the Brecht/Weill piece - and another 20th-century work from composer Robert Beaser - both address the sins metaphorically. But Mr. Gordon, known for his opera "The Tibetan Book of the Dead," chose to face envy head on. His lyrics personifying the sin begin, "Can you look me in the eyes/ I am your envy/ I can spoil any party/ ruin your fun. You may start out feeling happy/ you may start out feeling loved/ but with me you will feel neither when I'm done."

He says he wanted his piece to feel serpentine and slithering. "There's this almost kind of seductive jazz language," he says of his use of low-pitched instruments like bass clarinet and cello, among others. "I really wrote it for Audra, so that there are parts when she's slithering around on the bottom with the instruments, and then all of a sudden she shoots up."

Unlike Gordon, Mr. Heggie - who composed an opera based on the book "Dead Man Walking" - has not worked with McDonald before. He was assigned to do a piece on vanity, and is conveying it in an word-free style called vocalise, which also describes what singers do when they are warming up.

"I decided I didn't want to do just a completely wordless thing. I wanted [it] to be sort of a fun theatrical song.... So I just looked at one aspect [of vanity] that could be kind of humorous."

The title of his piece is "Vanity (blah blah Me)," which is his take on how everything is background noise to a vain person until it's about them.

"What I imagine," he says, "is a person who is extraordinarily vain walking into a party where they know inside [that] every conversation is about them, so they suffer through small talk and then they get to the part where we're really hearing about what they're thinking."

So, he says, McDonald might do the vocalise first and then a lyric that includes, "blah blah he/ blah blah she/ blah blah wanna be / blah blah yours/ blah blah want/ blah blah but you can't."

The ever in-demand McDonald is squeezing in the four performances of this program - June 2, 4, 8, and 10 - between her current role in the Broadway revival of the play "A Raisin in the Sun," for which she has been nominated for a Tony. She also recently debuted a new work with the New York Philharmonic.

At Carnegie, she's helping end the first season of the new Zankel Hall, a midsize hall that opened in September 2003. In addition to "The Seven Deadly Sins," commissioned by the Carnegie Hall Corp., McDonald will also perform favorites from her repertoire.

It won't be the first time she's performed music about the sins. In recent years she's also done the Brecht/Weill piece. But Sperling says they are creating something fresh. "This is not in any way meant to mimic that," he explains. "It's a very different way of dealing with the sins."

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