BWW OperaView: A Funny Thing - or Not - Happened on the Way to the Opera House

BWW OperaView: A Funny Thing - or Not - Happened on the Way to the Opera House
From right: Jonathan Michie as Alan Turing, Andrew
Bidlack as Christopher Morcom. Photo: David Perlman

What's new in opera? Everything you can imagine--and much that you couldn't conceive of, all in the space of a few days in New York.

After seeing that PBS' Great Performances was airing the Jimmy Lopez-Nilo Cruz BEL CANTO the other night, filmed during its 2015 debut at Lyric Opera of Chicago, I was reminded once again that, when it comes to contemporary opera, at least, New York City isn't the center of the world.

Yes, it's true that two of the country's top incubators for new composer-librettists and new works--American Lyric Theatre (ALT) and American Opera Projects (AOP)--are located here, and the edgy annual PROTOTYPE festival just completed its 2017. But one is more likely to hear new work aborning anywhere but here--at Opera Philadelphia (the Mazzoli-Vavrek BREAKING THE WAVES), Minneapolis Opera (the Puts-Campbell SILENT NIGHT) or Fort Worth Opera (the Little-Vavrek JFK). An even the Fargo-Moorhead Opera in Fargo, ND, has had world premieres, EMBEDDED and BURIED ALIVE.

Enter: This year's annual New Works Forum from OPERA America. The organization--which calls itself "the national advocate for opera" and gives out lots of grants for new opera development, among other activities--was doing its annual look at what's up in the art form, convened this year in the Big Apple, where it's headquartered.

Here's an introduction to some of the new works showcased around town to coincide with the Forum. In the space of two days, I saw a full concert version of an opera still in development, THE LIFE AND DEATH(S) OF ALAN TURING, plus excerpts from another half-dozen works.

THE LIFE AND DEATH(S) OF ALAN TURING

While TURING is not yet completed, last week's performance at Merkin Concert Hall presented by ALT, under Lawrence Edelson, which commissioned the work, proved that it's rapidly moving in that direction. Turing's story has become familiar through its film treatment, THE IMITATION GAME, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Kiera Knightly, and various other incarnations, but the opera by Justine Chen and David Simpatico stands in no one's shadow.

The opera emphasizes the personal side of Turing's life, which was complex since he lived in an age where his homosexuality ("gross indecency") was a criminal offense in the UK, which only pardoned him in 2013. His work on code-breaking at Bletchley Park to help stop the Nazi war machine--a credit that might have helped him avoid the charges--fell under the Secrets Act, which meant it couldn't even be mentioned. He was convicted, chemically castrated and, later, found dead from arsenic poisoning with a bitten apple nearby, though whether it was suicide, murder or somewhere in between was never concluded.

Chen's vibrant score was pretty remarkable, providing baritone Jonathan Michie as Turing, Elise Quagliata as Joan Clarke (coworker, friend and willing mate, though she knew he was gay), tenor Andrew Bidlack as his first love and soprano Kelly Futterer as his mother with some gorgeous music. A key element in the success of the piece is Chen's writing for chorus and she had a masterful (no pun intended) touch here, with the MasterVoices chorus handling it splendidly.

Simpatico's libretto manages to paint a broad canvas of "the man inside the legend," and, according to the creators, "the roles and various meanings of 'intelligence', 'memory' and 'passing.'" The multi-faceted work, I thought, accomplished those goals, though personally I might have liked a bit more of the code-breaking side of his story and wondered whether the authors ultimately need to take the plunge and choose fewer of Turing's "deaths" to end the story. (Or maybe not.) In any case, I look forward to hearing the finished work.

Conductor and chorus master Lidiya Yankovskaya did a splendid job in showing off the score, with pianist Djordje S. Nesic.

The opera has been made possible, in part, by the NYS Council on the Arts, the Francis Goelet Charitable Lead Trusts, the American Composers Forum with funds from the Jerome Foundation, Stephen M. Weiner and Don Cornuet. The performance had funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Founation.

OPERA America's New Opera Showcase

The other five works, presented at Town Hall near Times Square, were part of OPERA America's New Opera Showcase and provided some limited-but-mouth-watering tastes of the projects. Written in a variety of styles and themes, they showed that, for today's composers and librettists, nothing is taken for granted and anything goes.

Two of the featured works mulled over the choices put in front of us--and how we settle on them.

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.