AUTUMN SPECTRE: An Interview with Misha Penton

28 Sep



The internet record will show that Misha Penton and I have been friends for more than five years, so I’ll dispense with the usual laudatory introductions that start many interviews and just give a very brief history. Misha debuted her company, Divergence Vocal Theater, last fall with the Ottavia Project, based upon Monteverdi’s opera L’incoronazione di Poppea and the play Octavia, attributed to Seneca. DVT followed up in the spring with The 10th Muse, based upon the writings of Sappho, Gounod’s opera Sapho, and Berlioz’ Les Troyens, with the poetry of Jill Alexander Essbaum added to the mix. Both featured the choreography of Toni Leago Valle. 

October 2 and 3, DVT will perform its latest creation, Autumn Spectre at First Cumberland Presbyterian Church (2119 Avalon Place), at 8 p.m. each evening. It features art songs in English by such composers as Argento, Glass, Meredith Monk, Heggie, and Britten. Find out more about that below. 

Not on the record, Misha hinted at something else happening this fall . . . but it’s going to come fast and furious. Now would be a good time to get on the DVT mailing list so you don’t miss out. Sign up at their website: (And order your tickets for Autumn Spectre while you’re at it.) 

Neil Ellis Orts: Let’s talk about the structure of your first two shows as Divergence Vocal Theater, because I think some people who have seen them weren’t expecting what they saw. So let’s help out the people who come to see your shows. There seems to be an arc or a progression, but would you say there’s a plot or story? 

Misha Penton: I would say no, there’s not a story in a linear sense, but there are strong themes that are either based in character or, in the case of Autumn Spectre, the [song] texts. The first shows were built around taking opera excerpts and merging that with text that was on the same themes or even the same character from literature and also having a dance element, which is just my own personal thing. I just love dance. So the first two were based on operas. The first one, the Ottavia Project was based on the character Octavia and there’s an opera that is based on her story and also a play and so I drew from both of those. And the second was based on Sappho. There is an opera based on Sappho and then we used the poetry of Sappho and original poetry. 

NEO: What I come away with your work is a mood more than a story. Is that fair to say? 

MP: That is very fair to say. I’m moody. [Laughs.] Autumn Spectre is very much like that. It’s very much a mood piece. It’s based loosely on the text of contemporary art songs in English. There is an actor [Timothy Evers] in it who is also a playwright and he’s written a role for himself. But it’s very loosely strung together and it’s a very moody piece. We have a designer, Megan Reilly, from Austin who is making some film and creating lighting design in the church we’re performing in. One of the things about the setting is that I wanted to embrace that we’re in a church and have the church be the setting for the evening. 

NEO: So you’re in a church and you’re not pretending it’s anything other than a church. How does that play out in the themes of the show? 

MP: The themes are loss and longing and death and the end of the year, and the poetry that is set to the songs has a dark quality to it. The way that I think of the church environment is that very sort of deserted autumn feeling, of being in a church or churchyard. Here in Houston, I don’t know that we have them, but up north you have a lot of churches that have graveyards that are right adjacent to a church. 

NEO: You’ll find that here more out in the country. 

MP: So that’s in my imagination, the setting has that sort of ethereal quality to it. 

NEO: Is this all 20th Century music? 

MP: Autumn Spectre is all 20th Century music, yes. 

NEO: And the dance element is something sort of Butoh-ish? 

MP: Toni Valle is a Houston dancer-choreographer who sometimes does Butoh-inspired performances. I’ve seen her do a couple of things in that vein and that really resonated with me. So she is going to be what I think of as an elemental character, a very root chakra kind of being in the performance. 

NEO: That makes sense, since Butoh is a 20th Century phenomenon that grew out of post World War II Japan and often has a very stark quality to it. There’s probably some resonance from its beginnings with the themes you’re exploring. 

MP: It’s very stark, very intense, and it has a very earthy quality to it. 

NEO: And if the other two stories had an arc that explored characters, what is the arc to this story? 

MP: This is more an experience of mood, but there is somewhat of an arc. I guess the realization of the impermanence of life and yet there’s some joy or hopefulness even at the end of that idea. I hesitate to use the word redemption, but that’s what comes to mind. That impermanence or that change isn’t the end necessarily, that there is at the end of that darkness some kind of luminosity. 

NEO: And what about the future? Are you doing two shows this season as well? 

MP: We are planning to do something in late spring/early summer. 

NEO: Any sneak preview of what that might be? 

MP: It’s in development and under secrecy. 

NEO: Top secret! 

MP: Top secret!

Photo of DVT by David Brown.


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