New & Not-So-New Operas
by Leonard Lehrman
written in 2008 for The New Music Connoisseur
paragraphs #2 & 3 printed in v.16 #2 and posted, 2009
Packed into The Zipper Factory April 11 (repeated April 17) for the intriguingly titled "Opera After Hours: A Subversive Evening of Opera and Song" by Daniel Felsenfeld and Jennifer Griffith, directed by Christopher Alden with musical direction by Charity Wicks. The climax of the evening was Griffith's raunchy Bill Clinton fantasy, Dream Fantasy, with uninhibited soprano Constance Hauman stealing high honors, posing above baritone Michael Zegarski's cigar. Mezzo Jessica Miller-Rauch and soprano Amy van Roekel were also top-notch. In fact the entire evening was excellently performed, with well-chosen texts - Griffith's own; and those of Philip Larkin, Kate Gale, Elizabeth Isadora Gold and Djuna Barnes in collaboration with Felsenfeld.
The opera Our Town by Ned Rorem (b. 1923) with libretto by J. D. McClatchy after the play by Thornton Wilder, given its N.Y. premiere at Juilliard April 23 (& 25 & 27), takes a while to get going in its rambling first act. But the second and third acts, sensibly presented without a second intermission, make the wait worthwhile. Jennifer Zetlan was particularly outstanding as Emily, in a cast of 14 plus chorus, and given lovely flights of coloratura in expressing the late regret for not having cherished life while living it, which is the essential message of both play and opera. The composer's use of hymn tunes that go in and out of the often complex but relatively accessible texture is very effective, coming across as virtually inevitable in their appropriateness to the sad, lyrical story. Anne Manson was the dynamic conductor, Edward Berkeley the discreet but imaginative stage director. Along with Copland's Tender Land, and a number of works by Barber, Beeson, Bernstein, Blitzstein, Floyd, Moore, Siegmeister, and Ward, this work should be regarded as one of the great, classic, American operas.
Lee Hoiby (b. 1926) is also in, or near, that class, with several of his operas, including The Scarf (1958), A Month in the Country (1964) (originally called Natalia Petrovna, a revision in which I was pleased to have been called as a consultant), and Summer and Smoke (1971), which I have yet to see but would like to. Like Our Town, his one-act opera This Is the Rill Speaking (1992), on a libretto by his life companion Mark Shulgasser after the play by Lanford Wilson, also takes place in a small town in America, only a little later, circa 1950. Six singers play eleven roles of widely-varying ages, displaying similarities of personalities across generations. The music is unabashedly tonal, and quite lovely. SUNY-Purchase and American Opera Projects united to present the work in its professional premiere at Purchase April 26, along with Hoiby's full-length opera, The Tempest (1986), also with a libretto by Shulagasser, after Shakespeare. The Sharp Theatre at Symphony Space hosted an evening with the one-act and just excerpts of the larger work April 28, which left one wanting to hear more of it, of course. Benton Hess was the confident conductor, Ned Canty the director, in the shorter work. Jacque Trussel and Hugh Murphy were, respectively, director and conductor of the larger work, which featured some awesome coloratura sung by Molly Davey as Ariel. Eric Barry as Caliban displayed a nice lyric tenor, unfortunately often covered.
Another gently tonal opera, Dylan & Caitlin, by Robert Manno (b. 1944) and Gwynne Edwards, was gratifying to hear, even only excerpted, at NYCO's VOX 2008 at NYU's Skirball Auditorium May 11. Dealing with the lives and fights of Dylan Thomas and his wife, this work actually uses some of the writer's poems, to great lyrical advantage.
Stephen Wise Free Synagogue was the site of another operatic premiere, May 3: Korczak's Orphans by Adam Silverman (b. 1973) on a libretto by Susan Gubernat, based on the story of the legendary Dr. Janusz Korczak, martyred with the children he took care of in the Warsaw Ghetto, presented by Opera Company of Brooklyn. The children's chorus of 12, directed by Sarah Jane Hintz-Rau, were charming, and related to the audience. The cast of 10 adults were relatively strong, though obviously under-rehearsed, as anyone following the libretto could tell from the many slips, and even inadvertent skips, resulting in on-the-spot cuts, as well as missing visuals and stage directions. Fortunately the entire orchestra consisted of pianist Christopher Bruckman. Artistic director Jay Meetze conducted; Judy Weinstein directed. The musical language rarely veered from the safest tonal consonances, but a few moments, including the Orphans' Chorus at the end of Act I, pleading reassuringly "The people in your church won't be disturbed," were genuinely moving. If the company is interested in other operas about orphans, they should take a look at my Sima, written when Adam Silverman was 2.
Finally, the Center for Contemporary Opera in association with Princeton University, proudly presented the world premiere of Alice in Wonderland by Peter Westergaard (b. 1931) at Princeton May 22 and the Sharp Theatre at Symphony Space June 3 (& 4), 2008. Lewis Carroll has of course provided inspiration for countless composers, most notably perhaps David Del Tredici and Joseph Pehrson. But this was a unique experience, with a group of 7 singers providing their own orchestra, so to speak, of bells, whistles, and drums. Unlike John Eaton's pocket operas, where the virtuoso instrumentalists also sing, these were all operatically trained singers, called upon (as in John Doyle's version of Sweeney Todd) to play instruments, sometimes seated, other times strolling around the stage. The musical language was uncompromisingly serial, and often dizzying - intentionally so, as Alice hallucinates changing size with respect to doors and keyholes, as the projections behind her shrank and expanded amusingly. Jennifer Winn starred as Alice; the ensemble of Karen Jolicoeur, Abigail Fischer, Marshall Coid, David Kellett, and Eric Jordan, each playing multiple parts - and instruments - richly deserve equal kudos. Michael Pratt conducted; the composer directed. Cori Ellison was credited with the very helpful supertitles, but seemed not to have finished them(?) as they disappeared inopportunely in both acts. Mrs. Westergaard was heard to say afterwards that if 10 minutes were cut from each act, the whole thing could be presented together with the composer's delightful Edward Lear-inspired Mr. & Mrs. Discobbolos (1965). I think that'd be a good idea.