Review: STL Opera Collective Presents TESLA'S PIGEON and TO HELL AND BACK

By: Sep. 13, 2017

Since our resident opera critic, Steve Callahan, was appearing in one of the "pocket operas" produced this past weekend (September 8-9, 2017) by the STL Opera Collective, he asked if I would cover the shows, and I was happy to do so. This is a group that is just in their second season, but judging by the quality of the performances presented they show a great deal of promise. Two short operas were showcased on this occasion; TESLA'S PIGEON (by Melissa Dunphy) and TO HELL AND BACK (music by Jake Heggie and libretto by Gene Scheer). Both are striking, artful productions that move and challenge an audience, and I found them both to be highly engaging and superbly performed.

TESLA'S PIGEON opened the evening and runs just over a quarter of an hour. It explores a relationship between Nikola Tesla and a white dove that would visit him periodically. The story goes that Tesla was not inclined to become involved with women, preferring the company of the pigeons that he fed and cared for in his New York apartment. He professed a deep love for one particular dove, and this is explored in a unique opera that utilizes words culled from Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST, letters written to him, a Serbian folk song and epic poem, Goethe's FAUST, and G.S. Viereck's "Queen Lilith" from THE CANDLE AND THE FLAME.

Broadway World's own Steve Callahan portrays Tesla, and though it's a non-speaking role, Callahan imbues the part with a yearning sense of attachment, wordlessly reacting to the various vocalizations the dove provides during the waning days of his life. Emily Truckenbrod is costumed in a white outfit, complete with feathers, that allows her to embody the dove for which Tesla cared so deeply. The score by Dunphy requires the soprano to perform across a very wide range, and she does so with aplomb. The concept might seem a bit unusual, but it succeeds, and it manages to carry some emotional weight as well.

The second, longer work (about 40 minutes), is TO HELL AND BACK, a re-imagining of the Greco-Roman myth of Persephone, who is referred to as Stephanie here. This opera still retains some of the elements of its origins, but it's been reworked as a story about domestic abuse in modern times. Here, Stephanie is a young girl in Appalachia that marries a man named Peter who rapes her on her wedding night, and batters her regularly over a period of time. Safely away in Arizona with her family, she contacts her dear friend Anne to inquire if she has read the letter she sent her, which, as part of her rehab details her feelings on the incidents that occurred. The twist here is that Anne is Peter's mother, and she bears a sense of anguish and guilt at not having done something sooner to relieve Stephanie's misery. But, to Stephanie she is a hero, having sold her ring to purchase a ticket to Arizona so that she could send her friend to a safe haven, far from her tormentor.

Hana Abrams (Stephanie) and Stephanie Ruggles (Anne) deliver strong performances that detail their friendship. Elements from the myth remain, with Stephanie learning to garden under Anne's tutelage. And though this is heavy subject matter to deal with, the libretto does provide some humorous moments here and there that humanize the story. Abrams does stellar work as Stephanie, her strong voice soaring as she recounts her life story, seeking to reconnect with her friend. Ruggles is also very good, struggling to come to grips with the fact that she let the relationship between her son and friend to go on for too long, despite the blatant signs of abuse she witnessed. When they harmonize, or sing in counterpoint, it's a truly lovely and moving sound that they produce. This is a powerful tale made relevant by the reworking that occurs.

Kurtis Shoemake, acting as stage director and designer, does a splendid job of realizing both these fine works. The lighting is particularly evocative, and the the scenic design, props, and costumes suit both operas in fine fashion. Pianist Nancy Mayo is excellent throughout, tackling difficult scores that are both dissonant and melodic at various times (there's even a bit of ragtime in TO HELL AND BACK).

Be sure to keep an eye out for future productions by the STL Opera Collective. They are seeking to produce "high art" with their presentations, and have definitely reached that goal with these two operas, with each providing transcendent moments.

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