BWW Reviews: SVADBA (Wedding) Makes US Premiere At Opera Philadelphia
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a genre of music called "women's music" developed. It was, in essence, created by feminist folksingers who'd previously strummed against the war and who now strummed for women. They created some beautiful songs, but the genre only goes so far - it's folk music. At the same time, women began working actively in "women's arts", but, as with music, most women in the field of "women's art" remained at the craft level, not at the level of fine art. It took such artists as Judy Chicago, who created The Dinner Party in ceramics, to show that women's art could also be fine art. Unfortunately, women became increasingly active in orchestral and other "high art" music, but they promptly absorbed the traditional classical music ethos - women did not bring a new performance art ethos to art music during the women's revolution.
It's refreshing, therefore, to be handed a relatively new women-centric opera, SVADBA - WEDDING: composed by a woman, Serbian-Canadian composer Ana Sokolovic, on a woman-centered subject, written entirely for six women performers, and currently directed and conducted by women (stage director Marie-Josee Chartier, music director Dairine Ni Mheadhra), and given its U.S. premiere at Opera Philadelphia in concert with FringeArts at the FringeArts building and theatre from November 2 through 7, is not your father's TURANDOT. It is, however, art, not craft, and it is art of a particularly fine level. If it does not resemble the opera your parents bored you with, however - if you've developed a fear of interminably long performances punctuated by songs in a language you don't know whose words you can't follow due to long stretches of bel canto mutation of sound, and if you have nightmares of women in Viking helmets and men in ruffled collars, set all of those aside immediately. None of it will apply - except for the foreign language. Thank heaven for supertitles, usually - but in this case, they're almost not needed. Any woman who's helped a close friend get married will understand this opera without any translation at all.
Milica is getting married, and on the evening before her wedding, five close friends have come to help her prepare. They'll drink, eat, sing, play games, help Milica touch up her hair color, and stay overnight to help her in the morning. If the idea of doing this to Serbian folk songs and children's songs smacks a trice of Stravinsky, there are worse composers from whom one could borrow, and Sokolovic freely admits to borrowing ideas. She certainly borrowed no music - Stravinsky's work is undeniably Russian in origin, at least for the songs' words, and Sokolovic has gone to her musical heritage of Serbian lyrics. Soprano Jacqueline Woodley as Milica brings a lovely voice to her part, which is usually, throughout this short work's fifty minutes, in a cappella harmony with the other five women. Her one solo towards the end is hauntingly beautiful, both in lyric and in Woodley's performance.
Accompanying her, and also from the originating Queen of Puddings chamber opera company (now painfully defunct - alas for the number of opera companies that have been savaged financially and otherwise this past decade) are supporting singers Shannon Mercer, Laura Albino, Virginia Hatfield, Andrea Ludwig, and Krisztina Szabo. Their singing is, as noted, almost entirely a cappella, although there are occasional percussive notes made by everything from cups to, interestingly, short rainsticks. There's also some absolutely delightful vocal percussion - clicks, pops, and other percussive moments redolent of African music and some Arab music. Serbia's location geographically certainly places it in an area where those sounds are not as unfamiliar as they are to us, and they deserve their place in opera as well as in world-beat popular music. Opera needn't be shrouded in history only - LA TRAVIATA is still more than valid, but so is new operatic music, which requires evaluation based on musical merit and not on its close resemblance to our mothers' Joan Sutherland albums. The music of SVADBA is unfamiliar to the American ear, but no less meritorious than the traditional Western European classical opera sound with which we are far more familiar.
Sokolovic has done yeoman work in bringing about a short opera which makes the audience feel as if they are in the intimate setting of a bride's home, while Chartier and Ni Mheadhra have given it abundant life in a minimalist setting. This may not become the most-performed opera in the repertoire (partly because of linguistic constraints - this is not a language customarily studied by opera singers), but it is a worthy addition to the repertoire, and bears additional performances.
The untraditional staging at FringeArts included a followup performance, beginning on stage, by the West Philadelphia Orchestra performing traditional Balkan-region music, and a reception, with continual performance by the Orchestra, staged as a wedding reception, with regional dishes and a wedding cake. The interactivity of the event was delightful and well-received by the audience, though it is no sure bet that every place where this might be performed will be able to do the same. Opera Philadelphia and FringeArts are to be commended for bringing new, non-traditional opera to the area, and for this staging, which showcased both the opera itself and the wedding culture of the region as well, making the entertainment experience an educational immersion as well.
Opera Philadelphia's Opera In The City program is off to a fine start with this production, and one may hope that future events, both musically and in terms of location and associated activity, will be equally serendipitous. If opera is to reach a broader audience and to interact fully with the other arts communities, this is the sort of programming that needs to be done. This sort of resourcing - working with other organizations and encouraging productions of new works by non-traditional composers - may be a boon to those cities whose opera companies are in need of revitalization and new avenues for growth.
For information about Opera Philadelphia and the Opera In The City program, visit www.operaphila.org.
Photo courtesy of Opera Philadelphia