Barrington Courier Review

A cat, a plague and fine music: Fifth House Ensemble collaborates with graphic artist


Michael Bonesteel

, Contributor

Are the arts better when one or more forms are combined? Theater combines acting and storytelling. Graphic novels combine images and words. Film combines aspects of theater, photography and music. Sometimes more is better.

Classical music has been struggling throughout the 20th and 21st centuries to gain audiences, but the pure nature of the art form itself often does not seem to be enough win wide appreciation. That's why the classical music group Fifth House Ensemble has, as part of its mission statement, collaboration with other artistic mediums.

"We're not just a traditional repertoire group and not just a New Music company," said Melissa Shoza of Algonquin, flutist and executive founder (in 2005) of the 10-member Fifth House Ensemble. "We have performed with actors, dancers, clowns and mimes, and at the Shedd Aquarium. Sometimes it's hard to sit through a concert -- even for us classical musicians. So we want to play with the ways it can be performed. The idea of working with other art forms is a way to cross-pollinate audiences."

Look and listen

One of Fifth House's most critically acclaimed collaborations in recent years is a project called "Black Violet," a collaboration with graphic novelist Ezra Claytan Daniels in which scenes from Daniels' story are projected on a screen while the ensemble performs. "Black Violet" has been performed in a number of venues since 2009 and will be presented again at Metropolis Arts Centre in Arlington Heights on March 29 and Harper College in Palatine on April 19.

Two members of Fifth House are fans of graphic novels and they approached Daniels after seeing his book, The Changers, at Chicago Comics bookstore. At that point, "Black Violet" existed only as a storyline in Daniels head, so Fifth House provided a list of musical works to inspire him and from there they worked together to create the three-part musical drama. The final selection of music includes works by Brahms, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and more contemporary musicians, including Queen.

"Black Violet" is the story of a black house cat in 1665 who ventures out into the city of London to find her human mistress who left to attend to victims of the Plague and never returned. Violet meets another cat, a rat and two dogs, but the situation becomes dire when London's mayor declares all black cats must be destroyed in a desperate attempt to prevent the Plague from spreading.

Inspired by past

Daniels read Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year and consulted 17th century woodcuts and engravings, particularly those of William Hogarth and Wenceslaus Hollar, to get a feel for the language and art of the era. "Black Violet" very much mimics them in its expression, even down to the dialogue in the word balloons which are slanted in the manner of those period engravings.

After hand-drawing all the figures and backgrounds, he digitally repositioned puppet-like cutouts of heads, arms, legs and torsos against various backgrounds for each frame.

"It was definitely the hardest thing I've ever done," said Daniels, 32, a native of Sioux City who lived seven years in Chicago before recently relocating to Portland. "The deadlines were stressful, but to actually do something like that and then see a crowd of 300 people attend a performance with an amazing ensemble and the most beautiful music was a magical experience."

Act I of "Black Violet"

7:30 p.m. March 29 at Metropolis Arts Centre in Arlington Heights. Tickets are $25. For more, see or call (847) 577-2121. Act II is presented 7:30 p.m. April 19 at the Performing Arts Center at Harper College, Palatine. Free. A performance of Act III has yet to be scheduled. See for other upcoming productions. For information about Ezra Claytan Daniels' next project, see

To read the original article, view the Barrington Courier Review here.

779690281_black violet act i-1005

779690281_black violet act i-1005