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BWW Review: DAS BARBECU Ribs Wagner's Tetralogy with Saucy Results from On Site Opera

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BWW Review: DAS BARBECU Ribs Wagner's Tetralogy with Saucy Results from On Site Opera
Hughey (cowboy hat), Aronson
(tulle). Photo: BA Van Sise

There must be something in the air, with a couple of New York's small opera companies transporting 19th century German Romantic operas by Weber and Wagner to Texas within a couple of months, in search of ways to attract new audiences.

The first was Weber's DIE FREISCHUTZ, which Heartbeat Opera transported to the Lone Star state in December, fiddling with the libretto and music but introducing large chunks of opera lovers to a more-than-interesting score.

Now comes On Site Opera's new production of Jim Luigs' and Scott Warrender's DAS BARBECU, codirected by Eric Einhorn and Katherine M. Carter, set in Hill Country Barbecue Market on West 26th Street in Manhattan.

It originally had been commissioned back in 1991 by the Seattle Opera, as a country western counterpoint (also set in Texas) to the company's notable Ring Cycle. This is not the show's first time at the New York rodeo but I believe it arrived with mixed results--as mixed as the combination of Broadway and country western that dominates the score (and to hell with opera).

BWW Review: DAS BARBECU Ribs Wagner's Tetralogy with Saucy Results from On Site Opera
Fishenfeld, Washington and Aron as
The Norns. Photo: BA Van Sise

BARBECU offers some real laughs, amusing songs and hysterical plays on words and, despite the quip by playwright George S. Kaufman that "Satire is what closes on Saturday night," this is one fairly tasty take on Wagner that has had many lives over its nearly 30 years.

Plus, here at the Barbecue (which includes a real meal), it features a smart cast of five, who manage to turn into 25 characters (some others from the Ring were jettisoned in the redaction) in this toothy satire through wigs, mustaches and various other paraphernalia (costumes by Whitney Locher, hair & makup by Gabrielle Vincent, props by Sydney Schatz). It also has a band, taken from members of the American Modern Ensemble, that winningly knows its way around a variety of musical styles, under conductor Emily Senturia.

The marvelous cast, who switch characters on a dime, include Jessica Fishenfeld as Brunnhilde (and several other character), Robert Wesley Mason (Wotan, Gunther, Hagen and others), the Zuri Washington (Wotan's wife Fricka and Erda, et al.), Justine Aronson (Gutrune, a Norn and a Rivermaiden, etc.) and tenor David Hughey (Siegfried, Alberich and so on). All brought good voices to the fold, though most left their opera training at the hitching post outside.

Yet, despite the cutting and pasting that was called for in turning the 15-hour Ring into a 2+ hour musical comedy, the work often seemed a little long--yet didn't quite manage to bring the uninitiated into the fold.

This was the case, despite an introductory presentation that still managed to leave some of the audience scratching their heads (even though there was further elucidation on the placements). Part of the problem was, as Emperor Joseph II purportedly said to Mozart (in AMADEUS), there were "too many notes"--here, too many songs that didn't pull this covered wagon west.

I'm not one of those people who think it's beyond the pale to make fun of Wagner's precious take on the gods, goddesses, dwarves and various other characters who inhabit the Rhine River, Valhalla and other locales in the tetralogy. In fact, I believe that the master wrote some real knee-slappers into the original--though his were unintentional, as opposed to On Site's satirical book and, particularly lyrics.

DAS BARBECU will be serving up its country fare through February 11 at Hill Country Barbecue Market. For tickets, see On Site on the web.

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From This Author Richard Sasanow