“Opera is a primal union of animal longing, as expressed in sound, and human meaning, as expressed in language,” writes the classical music wunderkind Matthew Aucoin in his notes on Crossing, his new opera for which he unconventionally wrote both the libretto and the music, inspired by the life of Walt Whitman and commissioned by the American Repertory Theatre as part of their multi-year National Civil War Project, at the Citi Schubert Theatre through June 6.

In foreground Alexander Lewis and Rod Gilfry. Photo: Gretjen Helene Photography
In foreground Alexander Lewis and Rod Gilfry. Photo: Gretjen Helene Photography

At 25, Aucoin has done more work with more world-renowned institutions than musicians more than twice his age might dream. In addition to this commission from the A.R.T., Aucoin is the Solti Conducting Apprentice of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Assistant Conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, and composer in residence at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum where he will be presenting a cycle of art songs in the galleries June 26-27.

It’s through multiple performances at PEM that I’ve had the opportunity to experience in the flesh the extraordinary musicianship the rest of the world has read so much about in extensive profiles by the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. I’ve born witness to Aucoin’s pluck and volubility at the piano, precision and expressiveness on the conductor’s stand, and the contagious curiosity he shares for literary allusions and complex sounds.

Amidst all this virtuosity, though, I come away from each performance recognizing above all Aucoin’s youth, as undeniable as his technical prowess. The very picture of precocious. While much of the classical music world lauds this fact as salvific, I worry Aucoin’s fecund youth is being wasted on institutional gimmickry.

Rather than in service to aging institutions selling more tickets, I would love to see Aucoin use his youth to stretch his talents to breaking, absorbing, and creating and recasting the expressive sounds of universal human longing in his singular voice and understanding. By definition, this means he needs to take risks and to fail, a lot: anathema to the world-renowned institutions hiring him today, until he creates something so new and beautiful and true they can continue to sell tickets to productions of it for generations after Aucoin’s youth has faded.

While I have yet to see Aucoin fail, he’s certainly taken some risks, notably, with Crossing.

In content: Whitman’s self-sacrificing care of wounded soldiers introduces the uncomfortable idea of predatory compassion, which for Boston audiences especially, perhaps invokes the trauma of the church abuse scandal. And, while representation of homoeroticism today is largely passe, it still carries an air of taboo.

Musically: a chorus of eleven men creates a sonority of strength and beauty we hear (and experience) too little of. Appearances by women are perfunctory, agents of plot and convention. The Negro spiritual is invoked, transformed and celebrated with finesse and abiding understanding.

Indeed, there is virtually nothing here to overtly criticize. It is outstanding work deserving in every way of the highest marks.

But as Aucoin makes clear in his notes, the opera house is about more than winning high marks from on high; it’s a public, primal space of longing and meaning. And for me, the Citi Schubert seemed more an academic recital hall filled with friends and family in awe of all the music the proverbial young Johnny had learned.

Instead, I yearn and trust Matt to guide me into and through a musical wilderness I’ve never heard or imagined, to draw out emotions and relational complexities that surprise, frighten, and inspire me, to acknowledge the boundaries of my knowledge in demonstrating a new kind of freedom.

I realize, it’s an extremely high order. One might even say impossible. Except it’s been done before.

Ever read Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass?”

I think this kid’s just as good.

The workshop presentation of 'Crossing' on October 28, 2014. Photo:
The workshop presentation of ‘Crossing’ on October 28, 2014. Photo:

Music & libretto by Matthew Aucoin
>With the chamber orchestra A Far Cry
Directed by Diane Paulus
Through June 6
Citi Schubert Theatre
Tickets start at $25

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