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

By: Jan. 19, 2017
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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.


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.

CHARLOTTLE SALOMON: DER TOD UND DIE MALERIN (Charlotte Salomon: Death and the Painter) asks whether you take your life or make your life; Charlotte Salomon, a Jewish painter hiding from the Nazis, chose the latter, producing the artworks that are the basis of this ballet-opera. Performed in German with supertitles, the work by composer Michelle DiBucci does without dancers here, but shows off DiBucci's grasp of a variety of musical styles, which a German newspaper described as "an oratorio of sounds, voices and bodies...a polyphonic theatrical language." Salomon was arrested and later died in a concentration camp.

Did you ever wonder what it would be like to be the best version of yourself, a "Human 2.0" in computer-speak? That's what MACHINE, by composer Rene Orth and librettist Jason Kim, asks, adding, "And what does 'perfect' mean?" The hero of this chamber piece, with its cacophonous, soaring musical lines, chooses to have a computer chip implanted in her brain in order to be free of shortcomings, "a perfect being" (or so she thinks). During a video introduction, the composer worries about her own relation to perfection--a needless concern, it seemed [she's Opera Philadelphia's current composer in residence].

A couple of the pieces took their cues from mythology but showed modern sensibilities--and couldn't be more different from one another.

On the Chinese side, there was RATED R FOR RAT, with music and libretto by Wang Jie, while the Greeks prompted BEFORE THE NIGHT SKY, with music by Randall Eng and libretto by Donna Di Novelli, both developed through AOP.

RAT--which takes place as humans faced extinction and the Zodiac animal gods struggle with a crisis of their own--is due for a full production later this year from Festival Opera outside San Francisco. It has a frequently amusing libretto and some high-flying music, particularly for the Lark character, sung here by soprano Lauren Worsham. SKY was more philosophical in tone, and showed some beautiful writing for two voices (dealing with two pairs of twins, male [Castor and Pollux] and female [Clytymnestra and Helen]).

Finally, there was THE NEFARIOUS, IMMORAL BUT HIGHLY PROFITABLE ENTERPRISE OF MR. BURKE & MR. HARE--due for its world premiere at Boston Lyric Opera in November--by composer Julian Grant and the omnipresent librettist Mark Campbell. Commissioned by Music-Theatre Group in Brooklyn, it tells about the short (but not sweet) careers of a pair who supplied cadavers to a medical school in Edinburgh in 1828, and weren't to be stopped by a shortage of bodies, killing 16 people before they were caught. Sweeney Todd, watch out--you have some competition!

The creators couldn't have wished for better musical resources in presenting their works in progress, including singers Blythe Gaissart, Heather Buck, Amy Shoremount-Obra, Nian Wang, Vale Rideout, Chad Sloan, Liam Moran, Keith Browning, Evan Crawford, William Hare and the Choral Chameleon under Vince Peterson, with the SONOS Chamber Orchestra under Erik Ochsner.

The showcase was made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation and the Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation.

Minnesota Opera's DINNER AT EIGHT

Finally, there was Minnesota Opera's DINNER AT EIGHT, which takes place in the 1920s, as the Depression was setting in--a time not that different from our own, with "the unravelling of much of what we hold dear," according to librettist Mark Campbell. This was an add-on to the Forum activities, developed separately, and by far the most sophisticated and ready for prime time of all the excerpts I saw. (It should be: It's opening on March 11 at Ordway Center in St. Paul and is scheduled later for Ireland's Wexford Festival and the Atlanta Opera.)

Costume (Victoria Tzykun) and set (Alexander Dodge)
renderings for DINNER AT EIGHT.

Based on the Kauffman and Ferber play of the same name--the latest piece by the multi-faceted William Bolcom, with a Campbell libretto that is funny and moving, in Tomer Zvulun's production--the few excerpts that were presented sounded sensational and left me wanting more. Bolcom's score runs the gamut from Broadway to jazz to opera, and was presented by a game cast that included soprano Brenda Harris and baritone Craig Irvin performing roles that they will be doing at the opening, along with soprano Mary Evelyn Hangley, baritone Jesse Blumberg and tenor David Walton, with Jessica Hall on piano.

DINNER AT EIGHT was commissioned as part of Minnesota Opera's New Works Initiative, which was launched in 2008.