Four New Operas

On Monday, January 18, 2016, I attended Opera America's New Opera Showcase, produced in collaboration with Trinity Wall Street and featuring NOVUS NY, Trinity Wall Street's contemporary music orchestra.

The event provided excerpts from four new operas: Hannah Lash's Beowulf, Stewart Copeland's The Invention of Morel, Sheila Silver's A Thousand Splendid Suns, and Bright Sheng's Dream of the Red Chamber.

Beowulf, (words and music by Hannah Lash), is about the psychological struggle of the hero set in the present day, as he decides to care for his aging, paranoid mother in his own home after returning from war. The music was well orchestrated for clarinet, saxophone, percussion (xylophone) and violin, but I found that the most interesting music was the purely instrumental part, which carried me into a kind of dreamy, music-induced intoxication. The vocal line, on the other hand, was less exciting, more disjointed, less gripping. The singers, however, did their jobs well, especially mezzo soprano Margaret Lattimore, who played the aging mother. The juxtaposition of the hero Beowulf with the mundane modern-day task of getting his deteriorating mother out of a nursing home was at best a thought-provoking theme about the quotidian and yet sobering realities we all must face, and at worst, simply boring and a bit ridiculous. Maybe it's because I am used to thinking of a hero as a grand personage, that I didn't care much for seeing him trying to get his mother out of a nursing home, or maybe it's because I wasn't excited about the vocal line in this opera that I wasn't deeply moved. In all, I think Hannah Lash is a formidable composer, though I am inclined to say that her forte as of yet, lies in instrumental orchestration, rather than operatic drama. Then again, as a singer, I am biased, because I love a great, flowing, gripping vocal line!

The Invention of Morel (libretto Jonathan Moore), was largely percussion driven, which came as no big surprise, since Stewart Copeland is after all, a great rock drummer. I remember seeing him perform with Les Claypool in the band Oysterhead when I was a teenager at Bonnaroo, and being enthralled by his drumming precision and simultaneous enjoyment and concentration while performing. Needless to say, the rock-lover in me delighted in seeing this musician stage his own opera. The work is based on La Invención de Morel, a 1940 novel by Adolfo Bioy Casares about an escaped fugitive who finds himself on an isolated island in love with a woman who exists in an alternate reality, created by the mad-scientist, Morel. The work's grooving beat is unusual for opera, and it incorporated pre-recorded clips of storms and rumba music in addition to the live orchestral accompaniment. The percussion, however, was the music's salient feature, and it was indeed notably lively, exotic, and demanding.

Although the music was overall exciting and dramatic, the danger with the piece was that so much was happening sonically, that the words and story sometimes got lost, which is really our loss, because with a librettist as cool as Jonathan Moore, you really want to be able to appreciate the entire work. Perhaps the space on which it was staged in Trinity Church was too small for the large scope of the music's dynamics, as this was about as close as contemporary opera could get to everything we love about rock music: it's directness, flamboyance, and all-out maverick sense of style. Where Lash at times lost us to lassitude, Copeland could lose on over stimulation; the singers' voices were sometimes overpowered by the percussive parts in the score. Despite the occasional acoustic mismatch between the instrumentals and the voices in this particular space, it was keenly obvious that Vale Rideout was well-cast as Morel, as his somber, but stately stage-presence seemed to embody the trappings of an eccentric mad-scientist.

Next, A Thousand Splendid Suns (libretto by Stephen Kitsakos), is set in contemporary Afghanistan and features the story of women living "behind the veil." Adapted from the novel by Khaled Hosseini, it details the lives of two women, twenty years apart in age, each forced into marriage to the same cruel man. Initially cold to one another, they eventually develop a close, mother-daughter-like bond. Sheila Silver incorporated Indian musical elements, which included the use of tabla and bansuri flute, because Hindustani music is central to the music of Afghanistan. (She has recently returned from a six-month sojourn in Pune, India, where she studied Hindustani music). The music of this opera can be described as modern, but decidedly tonal. The audience responded most enthusiastically to this opera, which incorporated traditional love-themed operatic elements into its story-line. The duet between the characters Laila (Lucy Fitz Gibbon) and Tariq (Thor Arbjornsson) who are in love, was sweet and heart warming. It was so lyrical, well-crafted and performed, that I momentarily forgot I was listening to an opera in English! Laila's aria was equally romantic and moving. The juxtaposition of the young Mariam's misery at being married to an abusive, older man she does not love, and the happiness and gaiety of the young in-love couple who on the other hand, chose each other, was thought-provoking and powerful. Both Vira Slywotzky, who played Nana, Mariam's mother, and Aleksandra Romano did a fine job of dramatic acting and singing. The Hindustani percussion and wind colors in this music were simply beautiful, and the instrumental music as well as the vocal lines were impressive from beginning to end. The use of the otherworldly sounds of the bansuri flute at the start of the work set the stage for the gorgeous music to come. In all, this was the gem of the night. Sheila Silver should rightfully be proud, because she managed to not only move us, but inspire us: The best vocally operatic music that night came from a woman composer. And it brought the house down. Thank you Sheila Silver.

Finally, Dream of the Red Chamber (libretto David Henry Hwang) closed the night. It is adapted from Cao Xuequin's epic 18th century Qing Dynasty novel and centers on a love triangle between the main character, Bao Yu (Divine Stone; played by Jonathan Blalock), his beautiful cousin (who he loves) Dai Yu (Crimson Petal Flower; played by Amy Owens), and his other cousin (who he is being forced to marry), Bao Chai. This opera was tonal with a strong Chinese influence, and had a very beautiful and dramatic instrumental beginning. The vocal lines showed off the beautiful voices onstage, and Amy Owens, who filled in for a sick Maureen McKay, gave us a lovely performance with an expert control of dynamics in her coloratura range, seamlessly sliding from pianissimo to forte on several occasions. Jonathan Blalock had a sweet, lyrical tone to his tenor voice, and a warm presence on stage. He was well-cast as the romantic prince-like figure.

Last but not least, each of the three conductors that night (Julian Wachner, Daniela Candillari, and Sara Jobin) did their jobs fantastically. However, I must point out that Julian Wachner, the music director of Trinity Wall Street) was particularly enthusiastic and entertaining in his conducting. His excitement sometimes expressed itself in dancing while at the podium. It's always a pleasure to see a conductor lose himself in the music!

In all, it was a great night. I felt fortunate to get to attend this important event, that showcased some of the best compositional and vocal talents out there at the moment. I was happy to see half the composers represented were women. If I was particularly critical of the crafting of vocal lines, it is because I myself am a singer, and I have my own biases as to how they should optimally be composed so as to show off the beauty of the human voice and the artistry of the singers involved. Each composer that night gave the audience something unique and worthy: I am humbled to have been able to learn from the experts and to have the pleasure of hearing the wonderful musicians and singers do their outstanding jobs. Once again, thank you Opera America, for being the great institution you are, and bringing these works to light.

If you're interested in watching the show, click on the Source link below! Also, Opera America has posted brief interviews with each composer and their librettists talking about the work in question. From the source link below, you can also find those interviews on youtube.