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Review: New Works, Bold Voices at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

Operatic views of the Pandemic Year

Review: New Works, Bold Voices at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Calvin Griffin, Mack Wolz (above),
Monica Dewey, Melody Wilson

The glorious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has opened its New Works, Bold Voices Lab, a continuation of a program exploring where the world of opera might go in days ahead.

This season's offerings are three quite different short pieces, together lasting some hour and a quarter. These new small operas are not by newcomers but composers and librettists with deep credentials, bespangled with awards. But these small commissioned works are wildly different from what one finds in the usual opera repertoire. Refreshing! Adventurous!

The small orchestra for the evening (string quartet plus bass, tympani and percussion) does remarkably beautiful work under the baton of Maestra Daniella Candillari.

The three mini-operas are:

Review: New Works, Bold Voices at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Jonathan Johnson, Markel Reed

Personally I'm getting a little tired of op-eds and journals and blogs expounding on the miseries and frustrations of life in the Pandemic. We all know that. We've all endured the tedium of business via Zoom and teaching at home, of the sense of being locked-in, etc., etc., etc.

But what a surprise! Here composer Laura Karpman and librettist Taura Stinson present three separate months of 2020--April, May and June. Two are delights.

"April" shows us a Single Mom (Monica Dewey) struggling through this mess. She has to be up on Descartes, has to mediate a music lesson on Fauré, gets lost in trigonometry. "If I'd known this was coming I'd have gotten back together with my ex!" Repeatedly she falls into: "I am stuck/ in this muck/ what the . . ."

Review: New Works, Bold Voices at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Monica Dewey

Ms. Dewey, who worked such wonders in OTSL's recent MARRIAGE OF FIGARO, REGINA, and TITUS, once again brings a glorious voice and great charm to the role. It's a very lively performance. She's joined here by Calvin Griffin with his deep and resonant baritone. Melody Wilson and Mack Wolz do splendid work in several supporting roles.

The score is frenzied and varied and comic. And the scenery (Allen Moyer) and projections (Greg Emetaz) are quite wonderful-mobile and cartoonish.

"May" brings us boredom. "Getting fat, fat, fat!" "Zoom, Zoom, Zoom!" (Lovely interlacing of voices.) A couple mom's, a son, a grandma. Cooking and baking. The lawyer mom is doing "briefs in her briefs". Everybody's doing "MULTI-TASKING!" The orchestration is quite gorgeous. There's such variety-crazy, wistful, bluesy-with rich dissonances in the strings.

But "June." This is simply a pro forma obeisance to the Black Lives Matter movement. It's all right-thinking and deeply felt, but it has little to do with the announced theme of this work--"Parenting in the Pandemic". And, in fact, the libretto doesn't rise above the cliché. We bring a moaning cello in to support the de rigeur listing of the names of the dead. However righteous the cause, a plea (repeated in essentially the same terms we've heard a thousand times already) becomes mere cant, and it washes over us. Here we have little of the inventiveness-and of course none of the wit-in which the other two parts of this work are so rich. (The final opera of the evening addresses the race issue far more effectively.)

MOON TEA, with music by Steven Mackey and libretto by Rinde Eckart is a very bizarre piece Neil Armstrong, "Buzz" Aldrin, Michael Collins and their wives visited the royal family at Buckingham Palace. For some reason (economy?) we see here only the Armstrongs and Capt. Collins having tea with Her Majesty and Prince Phillip.

We join the royal couple as they watch the moon-landing on TV. Then Phillip (Jonathan Johnson) daydreams about himself being on such a heroic mission-"and not a blessed queen in sight." Mr. Johnson does excellent work--even (curiously) lofting his lovely tenor voice into counter-tenor (or falsetto?) for the final few bars.

The score is very modern, very difficult--one might say "abstract". Sometimes it scampers; sometimes it's frantic. Often there are two or more vocal lines overlapping. It's interestingly complex, but the contending lyrics make it impossible for us to catch any bits of humor which may fly by.

Jarrett Porter as Armstrong and Melody Wilson as his wife Janet do fine comic work as they are dressing for their visit to the palace. Armstrong has a terrible cold, and many of his lyrics are simply "Achoo!"s-which Porter produces most musically. Janet ignores this and daydreams about becoming the Queen's best friend and going shopping with her.

Monica Dewey is splendid, once again, as Queen Elizabeth, who indulges her own fantasies. Under a shower of colored glitter she's lifted onto a table in front of a huge image of the moon. She sings her dream of being queen of the moon, drifting weightless and alone in moonlit space. It's beautifully and gracefully done-while primitive papier-mâché planets, rockets and meteors drift slowly in space.

Captain Collins (sung by Michael Day) is a bit of a physical and social klutz. He has inadvertently, but very improperly, turned his back on the Queen when leaving here presence. And he manages to break a precious vase! His wonderfully done song of embarrassment--in which he repeatedly drops into stammering mild obscenities--is a lightning-fast patter song like the best of Gilbert & Sullivan.

The piece ends in a gently mad quartet/quintet, the world of these folks filled with slowly orbiting beautiful giant tea-cups! There's a quite silly, but charming sort-of ballet.

I'm not quite sure what all this has to do with the Pandemic Year. I think it's merely an attempt to take these giant celebrities down a peg or two by exploring their feckless daydreams. It's all fun, and often quite lovely. But they're such easy targets.

(At this point we take a very brief "seventh-inning stretch" to allow a costume change or two.)

THE TONGUE AND THE LASH, with music by Damien Sneed and libretto by Karen Chilton, recalls a famous debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, Jr. It occurred in 1965 at Cambridge University. The format was that of the classic, adjudicated academic debate that has been a staple of Cambridge life since 1815.

This, to me, was the most effective and perfectly structured opera of the evening--and with quite glorious performances by Markel Reed (as Baldwin) and Jonathan Johnson (as Buckley).

The motion of the debate was: "The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro". (Does "1619" ring a bell?)

Now novelist/activist Baldwin entered the lists as the favorite. He was an icon to the undergraduate audience. Buckley was, to many, simply the enemy. But Buckley, a famously articulate orator, simply must be listened to.

This opera is a wonderfully poignant memory of a time when ideas, not just mottos or bumper-stickers, guided political debate.

These two men represent two different styles of debate. Markel Reed brings great articulate power and style in the model of the black preacher. Jonathan Johnson, with wonderful capture of Buckley's mannerisms, represents the grand old-fashioned political orator--but with such keen, quick intellect.

In all of this, stage director James Robinson deserves high kudos.

All in all it's another great triumph for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Come join the fun!

New Works, Bold Voices continues through June 18.

(Photos by Eric Woolsey)

From This Author - Steve Callahan

A native Kansan I have a BA (Math and Theatre) and MA (Theatre). I was working on a PhD in Theatre when IBM sniffed my math background and lured me away with money enough to feed my (then two) children.... (read more about this author)

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