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Michael Ching’s ‘Slaying the Dragon’BY: Steve Cohen 06.17.2012
Michael Ching’s Slaying the Dragon, based on the true story of a friendship between a Ku Klux Klansman and a rabbi, generates plenty of good feelings. But it lacks the essential ingredient in opera: dramatic conflict.
Slaying the Dragon. Music by Michael Ching; libretto by Ellen Frankel, based on the book Not By The Sword, by Kathryn Watterson; Leland Kimball directed; Andrew M. Kurtz conducted. Center City Opera Theatre production closed June 15, 2012, at the Academy of Vocal Arts, 1920 Spruce St. www.operatheater.org/wp4/slaying-the-dragon.
Can’t we all just get along?STEVE COHEN
Rarely does a premiere of a modern opera bring this much pleasure to its audience. Some new works earn respect, but rarely do they get the crowd smiling and singing along. Yet that’s what occurred at the first performance of Michael Ching’s Slaying the Dragon. The ending, in which good citizens forgive their past differences and embrace on stage, certainly generated good feelings in the audience.
But is warm-and-fuzzy what we want in dramatic theater? The essence of drama is conflict; usually sexual passion and killings are what make operas memorable. By those standards, Slaying the Dragon falls short of total satisfaction.
Slaying the Dragon is based on the book, Not By The Sword, by Kathryn Watterson. (It has nothing to do with a 1988 documentary film of the same name, which concerned the history of Asian-American actresses in Hollywood.) Watterson’s book relates the true story of a Ku Klux Klansman named Larry Trapp in Lincoln, Nebraska, who turned his back on bigotry after being befriended by a rabbi and his wife, converted to Judaism, and campaigned for tolerance until he died from diabetes at the age of 42.
Creepy phone calls
At the start, the leader is invested with the robes of a Grand Dragon. Then we see Klan toughs beat up an Asian American. In a creepy scene, the Grand Dragon telephones a black, a Jew and the Asian and threatens them. But we never believe that the Klan will follow through with its violent proclamations. We somehow know that good will triumph. So much for dramatic conflict.
Librettist Ellen Frankel has written a singable text that reflects the tale’s emotions while flowing nicely. Her words show us two dragons: the twin serpents of bigotry and public indifference.
Frankel attempts to add tension by revealing that the rabbi once served a jail sentence, which he failed to disclose when applying for his job. Her libretto also reveals that not all the Klansman’s intended victims can erase their anger and forgive him.
The rabbi answers these holdouts by singing that hating doesn’t erase hatred, and compassion can allow people to put hatred behind them. It’s a noble thought, but a shade too Pollyannish for a skeptical 21st-Century audience.
Composer Michael Ching has written a melodious score that’s especially strong in its ensemble scenes and choruses. At its best, he composes in an accessible style like Leonard Bernstein’s. (Think of “Make our garden grow” from Candide.)
In one scene— a service honoring Martin Luther King— Ching has a black minister lead the 133rd Psalm, Hinay mah tov, first in Hebrew and then in English (“How pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together”) that gets the audience clapping and singing along— a welcome rarity in modern opera.
Some relatively little-known singers made huge impressions here. Christopher Lorge is a middle-aged tenor with a powerful stentorian voice, perfect for embodying the Grand Dragon. Where has he been all these years?
Mezzo Jody Kidwell was similarly effective as a Holocaust survivor, with one great dramatic aria. Roland Burks was the charismatic minister who led the sing-along. Jason Switzer, a deservedly well-known baritone, excelled as the rabbi. The rest of the large cast was excellent too.
Andrew M. Kurtz, the company’s artistic director, conducted with zeal. Leland Kimball directed effectively.♦
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