Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

AUFBAU 65:24 November 26, 1999 p.14
"Central Park" at New York City Opera
["Why Do the Wrong People...?"]
Three Composers Take on the City

898 words by Leonard Lehrman

["Why do the wrong people travel, while the right people stay at home?" With this show-stopping (and show-ending) number, Elaine Stritch gleefully put down her stellar supporting cast (including, most notably, Jerry Lanning, Marian Seldes, and Alison Fraser) after they had all left the stage in Weill Hall's sold-out two-week concert revival of Noel Coward's musical Sail Away, in which she had first starred in its original production, 38 years ago.

Viewing the latest sold-out triumph of the Glimmerglass-New York City Opera season, Central Park, many composers may be tempted to ask, "Why do the wrong people get commissions, while the right people sit at home?"

This coming season will see New York premieres of works by experienced American opera composers like William Mayer, John Eaton, and Stanley Walden. But they will be at places like Manhattan School of Music (in December), Miller Theatre at Columbia University (in May), and Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College (in June).

True,] there is something to be said for introducing new compositional talent to the world of opera, and for New York City Opera's commendable commitment to new and recent American operas in general. The three composers of Central Park have all made names for themselves in the orchestral field. And Robert Beaser, whose contribution to the trilogy was by far the most substantial, musically, has stated that he probably never would have taken the plunge into opera without the impetus of a commission (which came when Aaron Jay Kernis was, apparently, unceremoniously scotched by the powers that be).

But what ever brought about the installation of Deborah Drattell as composer-in-residence at New York City Opera when until now not a note of her operatic writing has been heard in New York City? Curiosity?--What would an Orthodox Jewish woman composer do with subjects like Lilith and Tashlich? The former was the subject of her first opera, which Glimmerglass has heard in concert, but the New York premiere of which was cancelled by a strike last year. The latter is the backdrop for The Festival of Regrets, the curtain- raiser for Central Park_ on a zinging text by Wendy Wasserstein.

[The Festival of Regrets]

The composer has stated that her primary concern in setting the Wasserstein words was timing, to make sure the jokes registered. She almost needn't have bothered, as the audience was laughing at the jokes as soon as they appeared on the surtitles, even before the actors could deliver them. Drattell's mostly whole-tone klezmoric orchestral underpinning gave plenty of room for the lovely voices of Lauren Flanigan, David Ossenfort, Leah Summers, John Hancock, and Margaret Lloyd to shine, but not much music to sing. Don Yule as the Rabbi had even less--mostly speaking. The dig at "Emanuel Jews" (i.e. Reform Jews who attend Temple Emanuel) who "name their son Wesley" seemed to register well with the New York audience, though one wonders how well it would outside New York. [One also wonders at the wisdom of scheduling such a premiere on a Friday night.

Strawberry Fields]

A barely-audible Mimi Lerner was affecting both in the Drattell and especially in the piece that followed it, "Strawberry Fields," a delightful libretto by A.R. Gurney with white-note white-bread music by Michael Torke. Not even designer-director Mark Lamos' affectations like pot-smoking onstage, with odors of incense drifting into the audience, could compensate for the blandness of musical tone this score exhaled, as the composer tried at all costs to avoid "eclecticism," and ended up instead with a homogenized pablum. The story of a demented woman who thinks she is watching an opera in Central Park is both pungent and poignant on so many levels; one only wishes the music were of comparable quality.

[The Food of Love]

Terrence McNally's and Robert Beaser's The Food of Love contained the only aria of the evening, a tour de force for Lauren Flanigan as another demented woman, trying to give her baby away to passers-by for adoption, beginning with a policeman (Troy Cook) who, by the end of the opera, mercifully calls a shelter to come and get her.

First, though, there is a snowfall reminiscent of the ending of The Ballad of Baby Doe and a small ballet of little girls (as in Hansel and Gretel?)--leaving everything on a symbolic, ambiguous note. The plot's symbolism does recall many other works too, most notably Everyman, several Janacek operas, and the Bernard Malamud-Marc Blitzstein Idiots First; and the music often does rise to the occasion. Conductor Stewart Robertson kept the orchestra moving dynamically.

[The Warrior Saint]

There was more music, though, in Lou Rodgers' half-hour ten-movement monodrama of a decade ago, The Warrior Saint, revived at Greenwich House Music School by her Golden Fleece Ltd. Composers Chamber Theatre this past week, than in the entire Central Park. Veronica Burke vividly reprised her role as Joan of Arc, on an English text by the composer coupled with excerpts of Joan's actual words in French. The five-piece ensemble was spiritedly conducted by Gary Schneider[, who also had a work on the program, along with Memrie Innerarity, Robert Mitchell, Virgil Thomson and Richard Peaslee]. There are good opera composers out there for companies to find.

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