BWW OperaView: A Look into the Kennedys, Ghosts and Holocaust Survivors at ALT Alumni Concert at the Morgan Library
Baritone Joseph Lattanzi and mezzo Laura Krumm didn't originate at the roles of Jack and Jackie Kennedy when JFK--the new opera by David T. Little and Royce Vavrek--premiered in Fort Worth a year ago. Neither did Heather Johnson as Jackie O nor Jessica James as the maid Clara (and other roles). But they certainly owned them in the excerpts presented in the most daring of the four excellent works represented in the "ALT Alumni: Composers and Librettists in Concert" in the Gilder Lehrman Hall at New York's Morgan Library & Museum last week.
ALT--American Lyric Theatre, one of JFK's co-commissioners and home to the Composer Librettist Development Program, which founder and director Larry Edelson calls a "master's program in opera writing"--has been presenting these concerts annually, to show what's going on in writing for opera from the ALT side of town. It was a heady mix: The alumni represented here were composer Clint Borzoni (THE COPPER QUEEN with librettist John de los Santos), composer Gerald Cohen and librettist Deborah Brevoort of STEAL A PENCIL FOR ME, librettist Stephanie Fleischmann (AFTER THE STORM with composer David Hanlon) and JFK's Vavrek (and librettist of this year's Pulitzer Prize in Music winner, Du Yun's ANGEL BONE, among other high visibility projects).
Last things first, the three sections from JFK ended the afternoon on a particularly high note, providing a heady look into the glorious score of a highly stylized work. While an intimate introductory duet for Jack and Jackie ("You Look Familiar/Written on the Palm") and the unintentionally ironic "Lucky Man" aria for Jack were beautifully written and performed, it was the trio, "It is Time/I Have a Rendezvous," for the two stages of Jackie's life (Jackie Kennedy and Jackie O) plus the maid, that walked off with the honors for the sheer beauty of its writing, pithy accompaniment and all. I was skeptical when I heard the trio compared to the similar Act III ensemble from DER ROSENKAVALIER--coincidentally being performed at the Met this week--until Krumm, Johnson and Jones performed it so wonderfully and I found so much to admire. The opera's next fully staged performance will be at the Opera de Montreal, another of its co-commissioners (with FWOpera and ALT), in January 2018.
The multiple tragedies of the Holocaust have inspired numerous contemporary operas, but STEAL A PENCIL FOR ME by Cohen and Brevoort is unusual. Based on a true story--Cohen was inspired by the story of two of his congregants in Scarsdale, where he is a cantor--the creators describe it as a romantic comedy-farce, set against the trials of concentration camp life. Attracted to each other, Ina and Jaap Polak were both otherwised engaged: He was married, she involved with a man gone off to an unknown fate in Auschwitz.
The rangy yet melodic score, and frequent use of Sprechstimme (sung dialogue), made the duet "An Ordinary Breakfast" appealing in performances by soprano Jones and baritone Gideon Dabi, while the dissonance of the final quartet, in which the estranged wife (Johnson) and missing love (Spensor Viator) give permission for Ina and Jaap's relationship, adds poignancy and hope without a trace of mawkishness. The opera will have its world premiere at Opera Colorado in January 2018 and was featured at Fort Worth Opera's 2016 Frontiers Festival.
The other two works on the program dealt with ghost stories, though in very different ways that made each unique.
Borzoni's score is quite effective. It uses a variety of styles--from honky tonk to ultra-lyrical and romantic--to tell the true story of Julia Lowell, a sex worker who lived at The Copper Queen Hotel in Bisbee, Arizona at the start of the 20th century (dramatically portrayed here by the passionate soprano Caroline Worra).
She commits suicide and haunts the hotel to this day (Borzoni vouches for it). De los Santos' libretto, split between the past and present, introduces a contemporary character, Addison Moore (mezzo Krumm), who discovers Julia's tragic life, and afterlife, along with the audience. The piece was winner of Arizona Opera's SPARK competition; the where-and-when of the opera's first complete staged performance will soon be announced.
In AFTER THE STORM, a chamber opera that debuted at Houston Grand Opera's HGOco in 2016, Hanlon and Fleischmann tell the stories--past and present--of people in Galveston, Texas, who have "storms in their blood" and explain what roots them to their homes in the face of nature at its most frightening.
The three excerpts featured moving performances from Worra, Krumm, Johnson, Jones, Dabi and Viator. They showed different aspects of Hanlon's distinctive voice as a composer, whether outstandingly melodic or in counterpoint, and Fleischmann's gift for storytelling, which began with a Greek chorus (the ghosts of 1900), went on to Hurricane Ike in 2008 and those who didn't want to leave even as the waters were rising, and finally looked ahead to a future storm.
Djordje Nesic was ideal on piano--it would be an injustice to call his work "accompaniment" since it was so integral to the success of the afternoon. He was exceedingly sensitive to the varying demands of the composers and singers, leaving us hardly aware that the pieces were meant for orchestral accompaniment.
The concert left me wanting to hear more of all the pieces involved--and wondering when New York might catch up with some of these other cities in offering more than a peek at the future of opera.