The libretto to Sunburst was written by Paul Schick, who then found Dan Plonsey (me) to put some music to it. Paul's initial concept was of an improvised opera, which he called an "Impropera" (I think someone else came up with this term independently as well).

The complete opera has twelve scenes, and is about one hour long. As Paul and I worked on it, we worked as for three related operas: 1) the ideal, full opera with elaborate staging, 2) a recorded radio-opera (that is, audio only), and 3) a shortened version of the first 7 scenes (scene 7 was eventually dropped) for performance on the March 19, 2000 OPUS415 No.5 Bay Area New Music Marathon.


SCENE 1: Introduction. Musical cosmic primordial soup: many colors: short phrases in all registers from as many instruments as possible, woodwind, brass, strings, percussion. The Chorus enters, muttering to themselves at first, then converging: "The People Never Know What's Right" (a loose translation of "Die Menge war noch nie des Rechtes Zeuge" from Schiller), undercutting the precise factual content of the events which are to follow.
SCENE 2: A cosmic explosion: debris rains down. The Chorus panics at first, but within minutes are back to discussing superficial gossip. A reporter asks a scientist for an explanation of what has occurred; the scientist responds by quoting the 1959 Encyclopedia Brittanica on the phenomen of falling meteors and their common depictions and associations throughout history.
SCENE 3: A young boy goes into a pool to retrieve a piece of debris. His mother is frightened and orders him out.
SCENE 4: The retrieved object is revealed to be an alian artifact with a cave-painting sort of painting of an alien reclining by a pool in a deck chair.
SCENE 5: The Chorus muses: The strangeness of the extra-terrestrial shows us the strangeness of earth! Why should it be any stranger there than here? And this sentiment is inverted and extrapolated upon, Sun Ra-style: Why should it be any stranger here than there? etc. The alien artifacts begin to reveal other powers: they conjure up images of those examining them, and then intercut these with glimpses of the dead, along with their voices. However, the cameras are having a hard time focusing, as though un-used to their subjects. Paul notes, "The purpose of this scene and its music is to evoke the difficulty of strangeness, and our relation to it. A general sense of restrained terror should prevail, as it should throughout."
SCENE 6: Ultimately, Orpheus himself is conjured up, and he sings an aria (text by Emily Dickinson).
The Tint I cannot take-is best-
The Color too remote
That I could show it in Bazaar-
A Guinea at a sight--

The fine-impalpable Array-
That swaggers on the eye
Like Cleopatra's Company-
Repeated-in the sky--

The Moments of Dominion
That happen on the Soul
And leave it with a Discontent
Too exquisite-to tell--

The eager look-on Landscapes-
As if they just repressed
Some secret-that was pushing
Like Chariots-in the Vest--

The pleading of the Summer-
That other Prank-of Snow-
That Cushions Mystery with Tulle,
For fear the Squirrels-know,

Their Graspless manners-mock us-
Until the cheated Eye
Shuts arrogantly-in the Grave-
Another way-to see--
The Chorus concludes: "By such songs as this, Orpheus draws the woods and rocks to follow him!" (from Ovid).


Sunburst is about -- and attempts to manifest itself -- the abrupt creativity: the awe, fear, joy, pain that come from the incursion into our individual or shared world of a sudden idea, or image of beauty (in this piece, represented as the fall of alien artifacts to earth) which necessitate a sudden creative response: improvised, or nearly so.

In Sunburst, an unexpected and utterly strange invasion -- inspiration? theophany? -- by the Creator? Creativity? Chaos? -- which conjures forth manifestations of Orpheus, Sun Ra, and brings forth the curiosity of a young child, all three of whom are known for their "life=art" overdriven creativity to which is attributed other-worldly power of unknown limits and conditions. However, one of the characteristics of the energy released is a sort of synesthic explosion of color as sound and sound as color, resulting in a near-frantic multitude of sounds in quick succession and without apparent pattern, and the simultaneus appearance of every color and fashion in the set and costumes. (Ideally, the stage would contain elements from many different settings from within the house, the workplace, and the outdoors; replicated on large and small scale, both functional and Claes Oldenburg-ishly not.)

It was necessary to use improvisation for the instrumental parts to fully match the headlong uncontrolled energy of the events -- which really boil down to one single moment. There is no time to read and respond; there is actually no time at all. There is, however, an impulse: to express all color.

Because we couldn't actually stage the odd effects Paul's libretto called for (in the OPUS415 version or in the recording), we opted to include on-stage a Video Artist who describes what would be happening (e.g., the projections of cast and famous artists of the past onto screens). This machination heightens the other-worldly aspect of the production, at the risk of some confusion.

Another somewhat arcane structural inclusion: the linking of each scene with a heavenly body (Sun, Moon, Earth, Venus, Mercury, Mars, Saturn...). For each scene, a series of Sun Ra-ian equations are recited, linking the action with the body and with Sun Ra. For example:

1. SUN
c) SUN = RA
These links will become more relevant in the fully staged version when other aspects of the bodies (e.g., the ascribed colors) determine certain aspects of staging.

The 6th scene (and last, in the OPUS415 version), features an aria by Orpheus (accompanying himself on national steel guitar, with slide), words by Emily Dickinson. These words suggest an overwhelming incursion upon the soul (that is, bypassing the senses), causing a synesthetic experience "Too exquisite to tell" and painful to the point of not being easily welcomed.


Paul Schick: kabalist
Susan Volkan: video artist, chorus
Mantra Ben-Ya'akova Plonsey: Mother, chorus & 
Cleveland Plonsey: Stephen (her son)
Nancy Clarke: reporter, narrator, chorus
John Schott: Orpheus
Dan Plonsey: woodwinds, percussion
Tom Yoder: trombone, percussion
Sarah Willner: viola, rebab, gangsa, Balinese flute, percussion
Photo of Nancy, Mantra, Dan, Cleveland, and Sarah
Photo of Nancy, Mantra, Dan, Cleveland, Sarah, and Tom


"Citizen Band (Xopher Davison, Thomas Day, and Gregory Lenczycki -- what kind of a name is Xopher, anyway?) brought evidence of an affinity for John Cage and David Tudor. It was almost as if the old guys were there themselves -- sittin' at the table, M-E-S-S-I-N-G around with the electronics. Nice. But nothing like the messing around in the concluding and disarmingly titled Sunburst (scenes 1-7) by the mad Dan Plonsey. Napoleon-like, bedomed with a colander, he played saxes and clarinets to Sarah Wilner's violin and erhu, and Tom Yoder's yodeling trombone. All played toys. Plonsey frantically made great efforts to pick up certain instruments, occasionally only to play single notes before abandoning them for other noisemakers. Nice. Meanwhile Plonsey's wife Mantra Ben-Ya'akova (what kind of a name is Mantra Ben-Ya'akova, anyway?), Susan Volkan, Nancy Clarke, and Paul Schick treated all to quadruple contrapuntal vocal overload. They talked a lot about a lot of things. One videotaped the event. Plonsey's son Cleveland got in what was supposed to be a pond and then wandered around the stage. Nice. And very funny. Finally Orpheus appeared, in the person of guitarist John Schott. He evoked fake electric raga then intoned an incredible, painful song with wild multiple octave displacements. Nice. It all meant something, but it's a secret."
-- Mark Alburger, Advance posting from the upcoming May 2000 issue of 21ST-CENTURY MUSIC (P.O. Box 2842, San Anselmo, CA 94960, 415-457-3714,

"Dan Plonsey's dramatic scene for three colander-wearing instrumentalists and a handful of singer-actors, managed to be oddly entertaining despite being essentially a string of in-jokes."
-- Josh Kosman, SF Chronicle, Tuesday, March 21


Send email to: Dan Plonsey.