Friday, January 19, 2018

Hands on Opera Debuts “Harriet’s Spirit”

Hands on Opera is the community outreach program of Opera Parallèle conceived to foster an interest in opera among children still at the elementary school level. This involves a collaborative process of making a new opera over the course of an eight-week residency. Exactly a year ago, this site reported on the impressive success of last year’s residency at the Alvarado Elementary School Spanish Immersion Program, a one-act opera entitled “Xochitl and the Flowers.”

Last night at the African American Art & Culture Complex, Opera Parallèle presented the results of this season’s residency at the Rooftop Alternative School. The title of this season’s opera was “Harriet’s Spirit,” composed by local jazzman Marcus Shelby. As was the case last season, the libretto was prepared by Roma Olvera, this time based on an original idea of a middle-school girl who finds her own identity through leaning about Harriet Tubman. Other “returning talent” from last season included conductor Luçik Aprahämian and pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi.

What was clear last season was that what mattered most was the extent to which the students bought into the project. This involved not only their receptiveness to the story they were telling but also the commitment they brought to bringing that story into performance. Clearly, the commitment itself was not at a “professional” level; but, in the resulting production of “Xochitl and the Flowers,” one could recognize how sure professional hands had shaped that commitment.

Sadly, this was not the case last night; and it is worth asking why without detracting from the efforts of the students themselves. In this case the buck probably started with Shelby himself, who is an undeniably significant asset to this city’s jazz community. Chris Pratorius’ score for last year’s “Xochitl and the Flowers” was well matched not only to the kids that would have to sing it but also to the members of the audience, many of whom were probably having their “first contact” experience with opera. Similarly, Olvera shaped her libretto around a children’s book, which gave her the benefit of a solid narrative framework.

In “Harriet’s Spirit” there was too much of everything in both the music and the words. This was all very well and good for enjoying the impressive vocal dexterity of Tiffany Austin (depicting Tubman) and Christabel Nunoo (singing the young student Modesty); but, for the most part, the participating students were clearly out of their depth. Similarly, Brendan Hartnett, who staged “Xochitl” knew how to keep things minimal without being overly abstract; and, through that minimality, every participating student knew how to “get into character” for the production. Director Erin Neff, on the other hand, seemed to compound the complexities posed by both Shelby and Olvera; and it was clear that most of the kids never got beyond being in the right place at the right time.

Let’s hope that next season’s project goes back to prioritizing the participating kids themselves over some “higher artistic vision.”

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