Center City Opera’s ‘ConNEXTions’ (2nd review)
Operas that ought to be musicalsSTEVE COHEN
Center City Opera Theatre is performing an estimable service by giving public stage performances of new operas– taking embryonic works from page to stage, as artistic director Andrew Kurtz puts it. Three new operas were given three performances each as part of the Philly Fringe Festival.
Kurtz and a committee sifted through a hundred scores that were submitted for consideration, and these three were rehearsed and presented. I’m impressed by the initiative.
But I wonder what chance is there for future performances. A member of the Saturday night audience asked this at a post-performance talkback. Kurtz replied that many opera venues are looking for material. Still, I doubt that any of these three will have much commercial life.
The first was the second act of a two-act opera called The Golden Gate, with music and lyrics by Conrad Cummings, based on a novel in verse by Vikram Seth. It’s an intimate story about the relationships in a small group of friends in San Francisco in the 1980s. Cummings’s music is conventionally tonal, attractive, and accessible.
But this work cries out to be an Off-Broadway musical rather than an opera. Here were big voices trying to add meaning to mundane conversations, and even to third-person descriptions of their feelings and to stage directions. Come to think of it, this is a story that cries out to remain a novel in verse.
Mesmerizing, or soporific?
The second opera, Fade, also had attractive music with softer contours, leaning towards French impressionism. If you’re in a complimentary mood, you could say it was mesmerizing; if not, you’d call it soporific. David Cote wrote a libretto that I’d like to re-read at leisure. Stefan Weisman composed the music, which I might like to hear as an instrumental suite.
The last of the three operas was the most theatrical, with an intriguing story and bracing music. The Hunger Art, with music by Jeff Myers and libretto by Royce Vavrek, melds two stories: the temptation of Eve from the Book of Genesis and Kafka’s last, short story from 1924, which bore the same name as this opera.
The Hunger Art was performed in concert at Symphony Space in New York City last January, but this was its stage premiere. This is a not insignificant distinction, because operas are theater and no one can properly appreciate them until they’re seen on stage.
The story concerns a husband and wife who are performance artists, locked in a cage as they endure a 40-day, self-imposed fast. Three butchers have been hired to watch them and make sure neither of them sneaks a bite. One butcher tempts the wife with an apple. She takes the bait, and her husband banishes her from the cage and, presumably, from his life. (Read Kafka’s story if you can; it provides a different, wonderfully ghoulish ending.) Myers’s score is more dramatic and more dissonant than the others and makes this the most satisfying of the three operas.
Switzer’s smooth baritone
The singers are excellent, particularly Jason Switzer, whose smooth baritone was heard in all three works. More than any of his colleagues, he was able to scale down his projection to a conversational level, to help his characters connect with audience members in this small auditorium. Other singers had rich voices but sang out almost as if they were performing verismo in an opera house.
Sometimes in straight theater an actor will speak too softly to be heard. Here the opposite was true: Singers let their voices expand on the vowels while consonants were neglected. From my second-row seat, barely more than half of the words were clear.
Perhaps there’ll be a performing future for these pieces at university venues, but I can’t see major opera houses producing these small-scale short works. I hope these hard-working creative people make some money and prove me wrong.
Peter Gelb at the Met is trying to find a place for contemporary music drama by offering the option of stagings either at the Met itself or at one of the smaller theaters at Lincoln Center. He has commissioned composers with a background in music theater, such as Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa and Ricky Ian Gordon, to try out their ideas without labeling their work as either opera or music theater. Could Andrew Kurtz find cooperating venues in Philadelphia to help him offer this option and expand his good intentions?
To read another review by Jim Rutter, click here.