05 February 2016

A Little Mini-Festival in New York

Man in Motion: David T. Little.
Photo by Merri Cyr.

The past few weeks have brought me fresh opportunities to hear the work of composer David T. Little. First up was the New York premiere and my third hearing of his opera Dog Days, to a libretto by Royce Vavrek (from a short story by Judy Budnitz). My initial response to this piece was complex: the piece is so powerful, so compelling, and yet I needed a long time — years, actually — to sort out my thoughts.

Dog Days is a tough, uncompromising work that becomes even more so in its final sequence. Just when you think you can’t take any more, David and Royce throw more at you — and then more, and more. The staging (by Robert Woodruff), the plot, and the music almost insist that you turn away, cover your ears, flee. And yet there’s a fundamental message of hope. No matter where Lisa is going, no matter what happens to her, she will be what she has been: a bastion of humanity in a savage world. The one who keeps trying, no matter the odds, to connect with others.

Seeing the piece first in its premiere production in Montclair, NJ; again in Fort Worth in 2015; and again last month in New York (always with the same, brilliant cast), that message resonated more and more powerfully, and I am ever more convinced that David’s music conveys that message just about flawlessly. Because I am who I am, I gravitate to some of the more lyrical passages, notably the haunting lullaby that accompanies Lisa’s letter to her pen-pal at the end of Act I; and the variations on the hymn-like grace pronounced by the family over its dwindling dinners. But because David is who he is, he weaves in a variety of compositional styles, dissonant or lyrical by turns, including a Broadway-ready duet for Lisa’s horny teenage brothers; and elements of hard and electronic rock pretty far from what I ordinarily listen to.

The brothers (played by Michael Marcotte and Peter Tansits) reveal a great deal about the way characters are portrayed. Surely the boys are, by necessity, a good deal younger than the grown men who portray them: the younger boy hasn’t really hit puberty yet. This lends a twist, no matter what your eyes are telling you, to the scene in which the Captain (Cherry Duke) tries to persuade the Father (James Bobick) to let her enlist the boys in the army. It’s not only that the Father tries, throughout the opera, to assert himself as provider and protector of the family — it’s that the boys are too young to be soldiers.

At each performance, I admired the restrained, weary-seeming, thoroughly lovely performance of soprano Marnie Breckinridge as the Mother; and the ingenious portrayal of Prince, the dog–man, by actor John Kelly. Each character is trapped, in a way, acting out a role because neither knows what else to do.

Worsham, in the world premiere.

Above all, Dog Days has benefitted from the fearlessly acted, limpidly sung performances of soprano Lauren Worsham. What Callas was to Tosca, Worsham is to Lisa, and as a diva-lover, I can predict that one factor in this opera’s future life will be the desire of other sopranos to sink their teeth into this role. Never in any performance medium have I seen anything to rival the extended scena in which Worsham, as Lisa, contemplates her body, wasted by starvation, in a mirror. (Woodruff and his tech crew have installed a camera in the mirror’s frame, so that Worsham’s “reflection” is projected on a giant screen over the stage.) Dressed only in underwear, her nose running (at least in Montclair), her eyes watering, Worsham’s Lisa grows ecstatic, believing that at last she’s attained the kind of body she’s admired in advertising and fashion magazines. It’s total theater: a marriage of music, words, staging, and performance.

It’s no wonder that Dog Days put David, Royce, and their producer, the indispensable Beth Morrison, on the cultural map. Thanks to David Adam Moore’s advocacy of David’s Soldier Songs, I was already keeping an eye on the composer’s work — but Dog Days has turned my interest and appreciation into something like an obsession.

That’s one reason I was so pleased to attend last night’s concert, at Opera America’s National Opera Center. Under the aegis of New York Festival of Song, David hosted an evening of works by composers he knows and admires. This was an extraordinary opportunity to know a composer’s mind — what excites him? Where does he see himself in the contemporary landscape? Through hearing other music, I feel I understand David better. When he observed from the stage that, earlier in his career, he avoided the beautiful in music, I thought I knew what he meant: though I found passages of beauty in Soldier Songs, and vast quantities of the stuff (albeit unexpectedly) in Dog Days, I’ve heard a new maturity in his forthcoming opera, JFK, an outright embrace of beauty — of majesty — of mythology and mystery and timelessness.

The other selections on the program helped to put this development into context, with the result that I’m not only more eager for JFK’s premiere (at Fort Worth Opera, April 23), I’m also more eager to hear the work of David’s colleagues.

First on the program was Colin Read’s Fairy Tales and Letters, an aptly magical song cycle, to texts by Lisa Rosinsky, performed by the pure-voiced soprano Justine Aronson (who might make a terrific Lisa), and, on piano, NYFOS associate artistic director Michael Barrett. From the stage, David observed that, the first time he saw Read’s score, he was struck by its “patience,” and indeed the music takes its (very) sweet time to make its points, spinning out the moments. The cycle is recital-ready, and I look forward to hearing it again.

In the most intriguing segment of the program, Kate Soper presented two excerpts from Here Be Sirens, singing alongside sopranos Gelsey Bell and Brett Umlauf. The sense of play — singing into and strumming the soundboard (my brother and I used to do this, far less artfully), using rocks for percussion, blending harmonies, extending notes and lines as if in a relay race (two singers kept singing while the third breathed) — combined with a sense of danger, until I felt as if I’d watched the women play with very deadly knives. Not only in the sheer curiosity is there an element of drama: the three sirens were distinctly characterized and fully compelling. Soper is clearly a talent to watch — I feel about this work much the way I felt about Soldier Songs. (Yes, some music is like a gateway drug.)

Singer, composer, siren: Kate Soper.

Also singing his work, Ted Hearne experimented with the conventions of pop music in “Intimacy and Resistance” (text by Allison Carter) and “Protection” (text by Meaghan Deans). David also takes inspiration from a variety of popular-music styles, and Hearne’s singing was marvelous. As grownup pop, aesthetically challenging, frequently surprising, Hearne’s songs score their points, but it’s not my field, and I’ll have to hear more before I grasp what he’s really after. (I emphasize: the fault is mine, not his.)

The always-impressive mezzo Eve Gigliotti performed Jeff Myers’ “Requiem Aeternam” — a poignant lullaby in which sleep brings intimations of death — from his Pagtulog na Nene, accompanied by string quartet (Ayano Ninomiya and Danbi Um, violin; Leslie Tomkins, viola; Alice Yoo, cello). After opening with tiny, thin lines from the violins, the entrance of the cello proved extraordinarily eloquent. Gigliotti delivered the text (in a Philippine language) with rich vocal colors and a smile that suggested that sleep or death might be a welcome comfort and release.

Gigliotti returned for David’s contributions to the program, two numbers from JFK: Jackie’s aria, “Caught in Shutterspeed” and her Moon Duet with Jack, sung by baritone Matthew Worth (who will sing this role, opposite Daniela Mack’s Jackie, at the world premiere). Full disclosure: I worked on JFK in its early stages, collecting research and interviews (which David and Royce didn’t need), and I’ve attended readings of the libretto and the score (minus a scene or two). This background doesn’t make me any more or less biased in the opera’s favor, though it does let me know in advance that the characterization of Jackie is going to be remembered as one of the signal achievements of opera in the 21st century, and a key to JFK’s future.

Always a treat to hear her: Gigliotti.

Indeed, it’s going to be a great pity if Gigliotti doesn’t wind up playing Jackie at some point. A born actress, she dug deeply into the character, and in her aria, eyes (including her own and mine) welled with tears. The Act I closer, “Shutterspeed” finds Jackie watching the sleeping Jack and rededicating herself to their marriage — on the night before his death.

The Moon Duet depicts Jack and Jackie’s courtship, compressing several encounters into one, from “Don’t I know you?” to “You love me,” and it offers us glimpses of two young people before history caught hold of them. Jack’s charm, Jackie’s shyness (and sly intelligence), the irresistible force of their union: it’s all here, and it, too, is poignant, because we know what comes after.

To judge by the reaction in New York last night, audiences in Fort Worth will need Sham-wows, not handkerchiefs, to wipe their tears. Maybe mops. This opera is going to be tremendous, and Worth is ready: uncannily, he looked more like Kennedy the more he sang. And this Little mini-festival has further whetted my interest, not only in JFK, but also in everything yet to come.

Little and Vavrek, Together Again.
For this fan, it’s like getting to follow Mozart and da Ponte wherever they go.

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