11 May 2013

The Haushofmeister’s Diary, Part 18: New Frontiers

Frontiers 2013: The Inaugural Class.
Left to right: Eddins, Current, Kushner, Jei, Sonenberg, Frey, Krausas, Karchin, Woods, Soluri, Brevoort, Howard.

This community that is Fort Worth Opera expanded this weekend, with a new program called Frontiers. A showcase for new works, Frontiers presented 20-minute excerpts (or, in two cases, complete operas that are short enough to be performed within the time limits) — in part because, especially now that Fort Worth Opera has earned a reputation for contemporary opera, the company’s management is deluged with submissions and proposals. General director Darren Woods can hardly review, much less produce, every score that crosses his desk. By narrowing the field to a select group, the Frontiers program can focus attention on several pieces and provide a valuable experience to the composers and librettists, without overextending the conductors, pianists, and singers who perform.

The selection panel comprised producers, conductors, a composer, a stage director, and one critic, who brought to the selection process a variety of practical experience, as well as aesthetic judgment. In this first year of the program, I was flattered to serve as a panelist — and yet mystified when Darren began to explain that this showcase would provide feedback for the composers and librettists. “Don’t they all do that?” I asked.

No, in fact, they don’t. A new piece may get produced, but in most cases the composer and librettist pretty much have to grab by the collar random audience members, company management, and performers, then wring out of them any assessments and advice. Darren and the producing director of Fort Worth Opera, Kurt Howard, who served as curator of the Frontiers program, were determined to offer creative teams more than the morale-boosting gratification of hearing their work performed before an audience.

The eight works were divided into two showcases, on Thursday evening and Friday afternoon, with feedback sessions scheduled for Friday and Saturday mornings (without an audience in attendance). Just as we’d all hoped, every one of the composers and librettists agreed that the feedback was valuable. But there was another surprise in store.

The composers and librettists ended up hanging out together, talking about their work and the challenges they face — not competing with one another but forming a community, and one that is now a part of the Fort Worth Opera community, too.

Showcasing Airline Icarus.
Left to right: Meredith Browning (Flight Attendant), Steven Eddy (Business Man),
and Ian McEuen (Scholar).

Consider, for example, that four of the singers in the showcase came from the Fort Worth Opera young artists program — and several came from the cast of Ariadne auf Naxos. They’ve now had the opportunity to work with living composers, a courtesy that Richard Strauss declined to show them. Along the way, they got the chance to showcase their own talents, learning and expertly performing unfamiliar music and multiples roles in a brief amount of time.

Really, this showcase made everybody look good, very much including the two conductors, Tyson Deaton and Stephen Dubberly, and two pianists, Stephen Carey and Jody Schum, who divided the works among them.

Two of the selections stand out particularly for me, not least because I expected to dislike them. The first is Stephen Eddins’ Why I Live at the P.O., a comic-operatic treatment of Eudora Welty’s celebrated short story that was clearly the hit of the entire Frontiers showcase. Yet when reading the title among the list of submissions, I groaned inwardly: this story has defied (and even scared off) attempts at adaptation before, simply because it’s so hard to find a way to tell it that is any more dramatic — or, for that matter, musical — than simply reading it aloud.

Eddins and his librettist, Michael O’Brien, hit on the brilliant solution of retaining Welty’s voice by making Sister both the narrator and an active participant in the opera, dividing her duties between two singers. With like felicity, Eddins found a jazz-flavored musical language that fits the dramatic setting and situation and is fun to listen to. The work is scored for big-band instruments; in the showcase, Jody Schum surpassed himself with a swing that not many musicians outside jazz can rival. (Those who doubt me can listen to the forces of the mighty Metropolitan Opera in Porgy and Bess.)

This piece also demonstrated what’s right with the young singers Fort Worth Opera hires. Beyond their musical talents, they’re all terrific actors, and when they’re handed comedic material this good, they run with it. Anthony Reed is younger than many of my socks, yet he laced into Papa-Daddy’s tirades with bravado; Kristen Lassiter and Jeni Houser were absolutely ideal as the sparring Sister 2 and Stella-Rondo, in whose mouths butter would not melt but quite possibly curdle instead. Amanda Robie made a terrific impact in the least-showy role, that of Mama, who’s trapped in the no-man’s-land between her daughters. And Corrie Donovan, herself a daughter of the South, went to town as the narrating Sister 1, smacking her lips over every syllable of the Pretty-Sweet poison she dispenses.

Why I Live at the P.O. is ready to roll, just about a guaranteed hit for any company that produces it — and promisingly, Eddins is talking already about writing a companion piece, a one-act opera based on a Flannery O’Connor story. (Indeed, baritone Michael Mayes, who attended the showcase performance, has threatened Eddins with bodily harm if he does not.)

Any new opera contains the power to surprise us, but some do so with exceptional artistry. My second surprise, Brian Current’s Airline Icarus, was one of the submissions I reviewed, and as I told him bluntly, the plot synopsis made it seem perfectly designed to inspire my hatred. Indeed, I’m not sure that any kind of description can convey the aesthetic pleasures that this piece provides — so I’ll keep my words to a minimum.

Suffice to say that Current and his librettist, Anton Piatigorsky, found in an airplane disaster a vehicle for sophisticated ideas about contemporary social interactions and the conflict between ambition and the frailty of human life, inspired by mythology and conveyed in exquisite poetry and gorgeous music, compelling (and sometimes comic) in the beginning and absolutely ecstatic by the end. It says something that I kept listening to the piece long after I’d completed my duties in the selection process. Airline Icarus is slated already for performance in Toronto, and I’m confident we’ll hear more of it, in more places, soon.

My response to Patrick Soluri’s Embedded, commissioned by American Lyric Theater to a libretto by Deborah Brevoort, was intensely personal: this is the rare occasion I’ve seen a dramatization of the most important ethical questions journalists face. How far does a reporter go in order to get a story? The reporter here is a TV anchor, sung by Kristen Lassiter (who impressed me mightily throughout the showcase), who gets the chance to interview Montressor, a terrorist, provided she agrees to embed herself in his cell. Like all the best devils in opera, he’s a seductive character — after all, in seduction lies drama — and as written by Soluri and sung by Anthony Reed, Montressor’s music was overtly erotic. I daresay half the audience got aroused. In keeping with the commission from the ALT program, Embedded found its inspiration in Poe (specifically The Cask of Amontillado), but it stands entirely independent of one’s knowledge of that story: it is its own kind of Tale of Terror.

Louis Karchin’s Jane Eyre is — obviously — drawn from classic literature, too, and it is in some ways the most “opera house” of the works we heard, with a three-act structure and a large-ish cast. Librettist Diane Osen has done an estimable job of paring the drama to its essence, and she starts off with an attention-grabbing scene that features arresting music by Karchin: a fire in Thornfield Hall. Among the selections performed at Frontiers, we heard that fire, as well as a few numbers that revealed how Karchin writes for the characters of Jane, Rochester, and Blanche Ingram but didn’t give us much indication of how he writes the drama — how he tells the story.

What I did hear certainly whetted my appetite for the rest. Remarkably, Karchin has taken on the entire project without a commission, but in an age when so many opera houses look to Big Novel adaptations for world premieres, Jane Eyre seems tailor-made to appeal to audiences.

We heard the entirety of Veronika Krausas’ The Mortal Thoughts of Lady M*cbeth, a chamber setting of a libretto by Thomas Pettit that juxtaposes Lady M’s principal speeches against several dialogues among the Three Witches. To a degree, this piece is another victim of synopsis-writing, because the highfalutin’ description didn’t begin to convey the real fascination of the music. Krausas creates an intensely moody, dreamlike atmosphere, in which whispering voices seem to come from everywhere and nowhere as Lady M (a bravura role for soprano Elizabeth Westerman) pursues her tragic destiny.

It’s so complete in itself that I’m less interested in hearing Krausas tackle the entire Scottish Play than in hearing her take on The Tempest: if anybody can convey Caliban’s “The isle is full of noises,” it’s this composer. Impressively, the almost lapidary polish of her writing still permits powerful emotional response: Mortal Thoughts is a strange and very beautiful score.

Yet despite the fact that it’s based on Shakespeare, I couldn’t on first hearing grasp the theatrical dimension of the piece. Mortal Thoughts seemed almost like a song cycle for soprano, if song recitals ever included backup singers (here, Jeni Houser, Kristen Lassiter, and Amanda Robie). But when Krausas told us about Yuval Sharon’s imaginative staging of the work, site-specific and augmented with dancers and other performers, I was forced to admit that there are reasons nobody hires me to direct opera. (See? Feedback is helpful for judges, too.)

The other complete chamber work we heard, and the opener for this showcase, was Wang Jie’s From the Other Side, and like Mortal Thoughts, it has already received performances. A musical fable that tells why there are 12 zodiac signs instead of 13, it’s a fun piece that manages the difficult trick of being whimsical without being cloying. The zodiac signs are Chinese, reflecting Jie’s native roots, and thus they’re animals, too. This suggests an opera for children, but I hasten to point out that they’ll need to be pretty deep-thinking children.

Here, the 13th animal, the Lark (Jeni Houser), sings to amuse the other zodiac animals, who are presided over by the Rat (Amanda Robie). But after a trip to Earth, where she meets the melancholy Cripple (also sung by Amanda Robie) and learns compassion, the Lark decides she’d rather live among people. There are all kinds of possibilities for exciting staging — Jie described this at one point as “an animé opera” — and I share her optimism that the piece could draw new audiences (children or not) to the opera.

Daniel Sonenberg’s The Summer King is in many ways the most ambitious work we heard, nothing less than a biography of Josh Gibson, a baseball player in the Negro League. Though Sonenberg hasn’t finished orchestrating it yet, Daniel Nester’s libretto seems to demand big, bigger, and biggest — big stage, big cast, big orchestra. Again, I’m not a director, and there may be economical means to achieve these ends, but I strongly suspect that if the finished project doesn’t somehow convey epic grandeur, then I will find it less satisfying. Fortunately, among American opera lovers, baseball is easily the favorite sport, so tapping into the crossover audience is hardly an impossible dream.

That said, my favorite section was an aria that, as Darren Woods observed, would serve beautifully as a stand-alone piece in recital or auditions. Sung with warmth of feeling by Amanda Robie, it’s a long reflection by Gibson’s mistress as she prepares to leave him.

It’s not only because Matt Frey’s The Fox and the Pomegranate is a work in progress that I find it intriguing: here at last is a treatment of one of the great operatic subjects, adultery, but with a very up-to-date spin. I was tempted to call this a transgender Tristan, but Wagner is less interested in the triangular geometry of his drama (I’ve always felt Marke gets the short end of the stick), and ultimately Daniel J. Kushner’s libretto, with its dense symbolism, more closely recalls Pelléas et Mélisande — reimagined for the 21st century.

Frey is up to his own kind of impressionism, and not Debussy’s kind, as he writes hypnotic vocal lines, repeating and shattering and reassembling lines of text. There are plenty of money notes, too, along with some formidable staging challenges: to cite just one example, how does one convey that Nate (sung by Amanda Robie) changes sex in the middle of a scene? I also note that, despite Debussy’s popularity in the concert hall, Pelléas still has trouble finding an audience, though it’s had since 1905 to do so. But The Fox and the Pomegranate is so utterly original, so curious and so compelling, that, just as I can’t wait to hear the next musical passage as I listen to the score, I can’t wait to hear where this opera goes next as it moves toward completion and production.

That will be relatively easy to do now, because Kushner and I exchanged contact information, as I did with most of the other showcase participants; the singers and conductors shared contact information with the composers and librettists, too; and so on. Many of us are now friends on Facebook. Meanwhile, audiences were drawn in, and the rippling of the Fort Worth Opera community continues ever outward. It’s one of the most remarkable phenomena I’ve witnessed — anywhere, ever.

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