A Night at the Opera

Terry Marks-Tarlow
Terry Marks-Tarlow. Photo by Claire Fordham

Clinical psychologist Dr. Terry Marks-Tarlow has a thriving therapy practice, is an author, illustrator, artist, dancer, and yogi. Now this top Topangan has another string to add to her already impressive bow, librettist for a mini opera commissioned by The Juilliard School that premiered in April at New York’s Lincoln Center.

It’s not just any libretto. Marks-Tarlow stepped into the shoes of the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas who, sixty years ago, was on his way to California to work on an opera with the great composer Igor Stravinsky but drank himself to death before he got there.

Thomas and Stravinsky envisioned a tale about a cataclysmic event that destroys the Earth. Only two Earthlings or aliens remain; they re-invent language, and language brings the world back into being. That’s as far as they got.

This is not Marks-Tarlow’s first libretto. In 2009, composer Jonathan Dawe had invited her to be the librettist on another opera collaboration, “Cracked Orlando.” That had been a great success, so she was his first choice for “Oroborium,” a project he mentioned at the time.

Dawe had read Marks-Tarlow’s book, “Psyche’s Veil,” that explores fractals, the mathematics of nature. Dawe wanted to include fractals in “Cracked Orlando” to appeal to the next generation of opera goers.

“I love fractal geometry,” said Marks-Tarlow. “I love fractals. It’s a new branch of mathematics that just came into being in the 1970s. It’s how nature does complexity and makes pattern and shape. I applied it to clinical psychology in my book. Jonathan loves fractals, too, and puts them in his music. I figured that I may as well try because if I failed nobody in my field would know.”

Marks-Tarlow found an elegant way to use a mathematic series of words where the relationship between the words remains the same throughout opera. Marks-Tarlow and Dawe “worked brilliantly” together on “Cracked Orlando” but stepping into Dylan Thomas’ shoes for Oroborium was quite a leap.

When Dawe first mentioned Oroborium in 2009, the opera didn’t have a name but Marks-Tarlow was intrigued, came home to Topanga and started learning about Dylan Thomas, read his family’s accounts of him and his poetry.

“I completely short circuited. As a person he was horrible. He was a raging alcoholic, he neglected his children and he was a womanizer. The thought of channeling him was impossible,” said Marks-Tarlow. There was another obstacle. “I didn’t understand his poetry.”

While she wouldn’t have wanted Thomas as a patient as he was a hopeless case in his addiction and too far gone, using clinical psychology was the solution.

“Creativity is my specialty as a psychologist. The whole story is about bringing the world back into being so I could be the therapist for the world and the therapist for Dylan Thomas. Then I realized it didn’t have to be a story about the outer world coming into being, it could be about the inner world coming into being. At that point it turned into a creation myth and I was on solid ground,” said Marks-Tarlow.

The word “Oroborium” derives from the Uroboros, the mythological snake that eats its own tale/tail, a symbol of self-creation and renewal. In the 35-minute opera, the drama begins after a cataclysm with two young children who are isolated and gripped by rage and fear. Only by connecting and comforting one another can they move through the developmental stages of curiosity and play before enduring separation and grief, so that they may reconnect through the highest human emotional states of awe and love.

“Oroborium” premiered at the big Alice Tully Hall in New York City’s Lincoln Center that seats 900. “It was well received,” said Marks-Tarlow. “It was really thrilling to attend the dress rehearsal as well.”

There’s no recording of it available.

“Juilliard is very proprietary and they don’t allow picture taking or recording, but  Jonathan and I own it and we can take it elsewhere. This performance was just two singers, a tenor and a soprano, on the stage singing. There’s every chance it will be performed again so I would make changes to the staging. Probably the ideal format would be an animation movie. Fractal geometry itself is an art form that animators use to make fantastical animations that are very life like on the computer,” she said.

Dawe told Marks-Tarlow at the after party that “Cracked Orlando” will be playing in Milan. “Which will be very exciting.”

Before they left New York, Dawe told his collaborator that he wants to do more mathematical opera based on fractal dimensionality. “which is the space between ordinary dimensions and as cantos, a series of songs. I have an idea how to do this,” said Marks-Tarlow who lives in Topanga with her husband, Buz. The couple has two adult children, a son and daughter, who are both thriving.

Marks-Tarlow accepts that a lot of therapists have really messed up children.

“There are therapists who have trouble helping themselves but are very helpful to others. Finding a good therapist is like dating. It’s important to meet and have an initial session with a therapist to see if there’s a chemistry and you could work together. I’ve been doing this for 40 years and I personally like challenging cases. I tend to work with people who have experienced trauma, have been stuck, and want to get to some new place. Helping them transform in that way is the most satisfying thing I can imagine.”


For more information: www.markstarlow.com.

To hear Fordham’s interview with Dr. Terry Marks-Tarlow in full where she expands on the therapy side of her work and other episodes of the podcast, “The Chat with Claire Fordham,” featuring interviews with top Topangans, at clairefordham.com and messengermountainnews.com/podcasts.


Claire Fordham

Fordham worked for the BBC, ITN and Sky News in the UK and wrote a weekly anecdotal column for Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper, The Sun. She currently writes regularly for Huffington Post, The Malibu Times and the Messenger Mountain News. See "A Chat with Claire Fordham" on this website under Podcasts.

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