BWW Reviews: THE SCARLET IBIS World Premiere in New York

By: Jan. 12, 2015
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Eric S. Brennar (left) and Hai-Ting Chinn (right) in THE SCARLET IBIS

THE SCARLET IBIS is one of three new operas to have its world premiere as a part of this year's PROTOTYPE FESTIVAL, New York's incubator for cutting edge, interdisciplinary performance. With any new work, I never fail to ask myself: Did it have an emotional impact? Was it good enough that I would see it again? Does it have enough appeal to revival again? The answers: yes, yes, and yes.

Initially, I was apprehensive about THE SCARLET IBIS because of its source material. In the shorty story by James Hurst about two siblings, Brother is resentful when Doodle is born with physical disabilities. Brother develops a physical therapy plan of sorts for Doodle, who is ultimately pushed passed his physical limits. When Doodle dies, covered in blood, Brother recalls a scarlet ibis that died in the family's yard months earlier.

Though I doubted there was enough material in the story to develop into a full-length musical drama, I am glad composer Stefan Weisman and librettist David Cote proved me wrong. THE SCARLET IBIS is a poignant piece that deals sensitively with difficult issues and emotions. To me, in fact, the narrative works better as an opera than as a short story.

Weisman's score is traditional enough at its core that it even borrows a snatch from Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten. Traditional doesn't mean banal or predictable, however. Cote's libretto worked very well, with nothing sounding too out of place or unnatural for the world they created - extraordinary considering how little dialogue is in the original short story.

The ease with which the score and the music and libretto worked together allowed me to forgot - for the most part - that I was watching an opera, and allowed me to focus on the characters. And that's all I really want - good storytelling.

Scarlet Ibis from Mallory Catlett on Vimeo.

The opera begins with Doodle's birth and ends with his death. The relationship he develops with Brother in between is a complex one. Mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn was impressive as the bratty Brother, who both loves and begrudges Doodle. The character that Weisman and Cote created for her reminded me, during moments, of Max from Sendak and Knussen's Where the Wild Things Are. (Of course Brother is angry about much more than just missing his super!)

Eric S. Brenner gave voice to Doodle himself, though Doodle's physical body was represented with puppets, beautifully designed by Tom Lee and operated by Eric F. Avery, Josh Rice, Meghan Williams, and Brenner himself. As Doodle often dreams, some of the most wistful and lyrical melodies are scored for him, including a haunting reverie for the dead ibis, and a dream song about a boy with a special pet peacock.

Some of the most visceral moments in the score were when Brenner and Chinn sang together: first, when Brother helps Doodle stand for the first time, as Doodle howls in pain and Brother screeches sympathetically; and later, when Brother and Doodle examine the simple objects they discover in the swamp with boyish awe, as thunder echoes ominously in the background.

Baritone Keith Phares and mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer played Father and Mother. A kind of duet between them was another memorable moment. On one side of the stage, Mother anxiously hopes her sweetly sleeping baby with have the strength to wake up from his nap, while at the opposite end, Father builds a tiny coffin in case Doodle dies. Nicole Mitchell, as the Auntie who delivers Doodle and helps to raise both boys, has a rich and powerful contralto that I am quite eager to hear again.

PROTOTYPE has recommended the show for anyone 12 and over, though the audience at Friday night's performance was decidedly adult. Still, it is accessible enough that even younger audiences could be entertained and enlightened by it. In fact, while I do not mean to imply that THE SCARLET IBIS is only suitable for young people - it would be excellent even for groups of elementary and middle school children to see. Aside from the fact that any exposure to the arts young people can have is a good thing, one of the chief merits of THE SCARLET IBIS is its potential to open up dialogues about difference, and that's something people of all ages need more of.