Monday, February 27, 2017

West Edge Opera Showcases Recent Operatic Efforts

Yesterday afternoon at the Bayview Opera House, West Edge Opera presented the San Francisco performance of the second of two offerings in a series entitled Snapshot. Conceived and curated by Brian M. Rosen, the program sheet described the series in terms of three opportunities: “the opportunity for a composer to get his or her work on its feet, the opportunity for you [the audience] to be exposed to new work, and the opportunity for West Edge Opera to become a leading advocate for local composers and new opera in the Bay Area.” Yesterday’s program presented the efforts of four of those composers. Carla Lucero wrote her own libretto. Linda Bouchard compiled her libretto using The Book of Embraces, the English translation of Eduardo Galeano’s El libro de los abrazos, for her sources. The remaining two composers worked with librettists, Liam Wade with Vynnie Meli and Allen Shearer with his wife Claudia Stevens.

Six vocalists contributed to yesterday’s performance, sopranos Amy Foote and Julia Hathaway, mezzo Molly Mahoney, tenors Joseph Meyers and Darron Flagg, and baritone Daniel Cilli. Instrumental accompaniment was provided by the Earplay chamber orchestra. For this occasion there were nine solo musicians: Stacey Pelinka (flute), Nick Di Scala (clarinet), Erin Irvine (bassoon), Kate Stenberg (violin), Erin Ruth Rose (viola), Leighton Fond (cello), Kristin Zoernig (bass), Keisuke Nakagoshi (piano), and Kevin Neuhoff (percussion). For Bouchard’s score Pelinka, Stenberg, and Fong supplemented the percussion section. Conducting was shared by Earplay’s Mary Chun (for Lucero and Bouchard) and Jonathan Khuner, Musical Director of West Edge Opera. (Khuner also performed in the Bouchard selection.)

The diversity across the four offerings was extensive. At one extreme Wade contributed a ten-minute opera performed in its entirety. The Atlanta Opera runs an annual 24-Hour Opera Project. Participating composers and librettists are paired off by a chance procedure, and each team is required to create a short opera in its entirety over the course of 24 hours. All the results are then performed before an audience. Wade and Meli came up with “The Stranger the Better,” an outrageous parody of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. This won the Audience Favorite Award, and performances have been scheduled in both St. Louis and Austin.

Yesterday it was easy to see why the Atlanta audience made its choice. Every cliché from Williams’ play was mercilessly tweaked, while Blanche DuBois was sung by the (bearded) tenor Myers in a thoroughly ludicrous drag. The spirit was defined immediately with Cilli’s first bellow of “Stella,” while Foote played up all of Stella’s weaknesses. What was impressive was how much of “the real thing” Meli managed to pack into her libretto; but just as impressive was Wade’s facility in turning every familiar moment on its head.

The other extreme of the pendulum swing was taken by Bouchard’s approach to Galeano. This was the third scene of a larger project entitled “The House of Words.” I once saw Galeano interviewed on Book TV. He talked about the primacy of memory in his work and about how he tries to maintain memory by collecting and telling stories. However, Bouchard’s scene was not so much a story as it was the result of a jam session among competing storytellers, telling their tales in an astonishing counterpoint.

The heart of the scene was an extended monologue by God (Meyers), who is still trying to understand how things went wrong in the Garden of Eden. Other scraps of narration were delivered in a party-like atmosphere, with the extended percussion work suggesting this was all taking place at a pre-Lenten carnival. The result was a delightful chaos in which the satirical rubbed shoulders with the serious, leaving one wondering what the eventual full scale of “The House of Words” will turn out to be.

The two selections performed before the intermission, on the other hand, were closer to what one tends to expect of opera. Lucero’s Touch has been planned as a full-length opera about Helen Keller (Mahoney) and the two major relationships in her life, the first with Anne Sullivan (Hathaway), teacher and companion, and the second with her lover Peter Fagan (Myers). The scene performed yesterday was entitled “One O’Clock;” and it focused on Sullivan’s attitude towards Fagan emerging as mixture of suspicion and jealousy. While it was clearly difficult to appreciate the full extent of this scene taken out of context, one could still appreciate Lucero’s craft in advancing the narrative flow through both the content of her words and the context established by her music.

Howards End, America is the latest Shearer-Stevens partnership. Like their previous collaboration Middlemarch in Spring, it involves taking a literary source and transplanting it to a more recent context. In this case E. M. Forster’s novel has been relocated to Boston in the Fifties, a time when the class distinction of the Boston Brahmins was finally beginning to recede (due in no small part to Congressional representation by John F. Kennedy, who was decidedly not Brahmin). More importantly, this was a time when the northern elites were not yet aware of the activities of Martin Luther King Jr. in the south; and even a city like Boston had its own way of practicing discreet segregation. Thus, in the Shearer-Stevens version Leonard Bast (Flagg) is black, making his illegitimate child with Helen Schlegel (Foote) of mixed race.

The excerpt from the third act performed yesterday afternoon included both the episode of Helen giving birth to the child and the clubbing to death of Bast by Charles Wilcox (Cilli). This was the most dramatically intense offering of the afternoon. More importantly, it was presented with a clarity that would have registered even with those unfamiliar with the novel. (On the other hand those who did know the book may have found the use of Forster’s epigrammatic “only connect” to be a bit forced.) This excerpt definitely put this rethinking of Howards End in a favorable light, but it will be interesting to see whether the fit of the novel to the entire opera will be a good one.

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