Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Contemporary Voices

One of the opera world's never-ending challenges is to find contemporary composers and librettists who can develop genuinely stageworthy new operas. The past decade witnessed three major steps toward achieving that goal: Both the Canadian Opera Company and the Lyric Opera of Chicago established composer-in-residence programs aimed at developing and producing new works. With the establishment of the "Opera For The Eighties And Beyond" program, OPERA America (the service organization for professional producing opera organizations) created a three-step package of developmental grants aimed at guiding new operas down the birth canal. And, under the artistic guidance of Wesley Balk and Ben Krywosz, the Minnesota Opera's New Music-Theater Ensemble became a living laboratory for new works which could be transported to distant cities for short-term residencies. These grass-roots residency programs were aimed at empowering local communities to discover and support the work of their own artists.

Last fall, while traipsing through the Midwest, I was able to experience productions of two major operas by contemporary composers. One was an obvious masterpiece. The other only served to reaffirm my doubts about the scope of its composer's talent.


Back in 1976 when the Minnesota Opera presented the world premiere of The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe, Dominick Argento's opera received some rather extraordinary reviews. Alas, after its European premiere in Goeteberg, Sweden, Argento's opera all but disappeared from the face of the earth. This past fall, as part of its ten-year commitment to producing important works by American composers, Lyric Opera of Chicago gave The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe a stunning new multi-media production designed by John Conklin and directed by Frank Galati (with projections by John Boesche). If one were to envision the kind of contemporary opera that should be produced today -- opera which is visually strong, theatrically challenging, musically rich and, at the same time, financially cost-effective -- there it was, sitting on Lyric's stage in all its glory.

The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe is not a perfect product. Indeed, there are moments when Charles Nolte's libretto becomes so confusing that this production might have suffered disastrously without the presence of Supertitles to help the audience follow the action. Nevertheless, the sum of this piece's parts offers operagoers the kind of sophisticated theater experience one prays for yet so rarely encounters.

Argento's score has astonishing strength; particularly in some of the choral passages. And, with Christopher Keene on the podium, the merits of the composer's score bespoke a rare gift for musical theater.

Frank Galati's ability to articulate the poet's feverish nightmares (and probe the darker corners of Poe's past) while staging an intensely personal and musical psychodrama transformed Argento's opera into a riveting stage spectacle. If you like opera staged as a cross between Fellini, Grand Guignol and a bad acid trip, Galati is your man! Lyric's production was further strengthened by the presence of many strong American talents (John Duykers, Winifred Faix Brown, Phyllis Pancella, Jane Shaulis, Stephen West) in supporting roles.

Soprano Ruth Ann Swenson delivered a stunning performance as Poe's wife, Virginia, while Richard Stilwell's Griswold was an appropriately sinister figure. However, if Lyric's production of The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe was a triumph for Argento, it offered an even brighter opportunity for tenor Donald Kaasch. After spending several years in Lyric Opera's Center for Young American Artists, Kaasch performed the title role with profound dramatic strength, dazzling vocal power and rose to the score's difficult challenges with the ease of a long-established professional. This talented young singer could easily have earned the "Best Performance In A Contemporary Opera" award.

If only there were such an award.


A visit to Milwaukee's Skylight Opera Theater made me wonder if I carry an operatic jinx with me. When I flew to Milwaukee last year to see Francesca Zambello's interpretation of Camille: La Traviata, the tenor singing the role of Alfredo lost his voice and a colleague came to the rescue by singing from the side of the theater while the tenor mimed the role onstage. This time, it was the lead singer in Harriet, The Woman Called Moses who was unable to sing. Although Shelia Tate valiantly went onstage to mime the role, her inability to sing had a definite effect on the opera.

Maybe it did and maybe it didn't.

Throughout her career, Thea Musgrave has evidenced an extraordinary ability to identify strong, stageworthy topics and develop them into operas. Past efforts include Mary, Queen of Scots, A Christmas Carol and The Voice of Ariadne (the composer is currently preparing Bolivar for its 1993 premiere at the Los Angeles Music Center Opera). Unfortunately, Musgrave's music has always struck me as extremely dry and academic. My exposures to Mary, Queen of Scots and A Christmas Carol left me wondering if this composer was writing from such a scholarly perspective that it was difficult for her operas to move an audience. After sitting through Skylight's production of Harriet, The Woman Called Moses, I'm convinced that Musgrave would be better off identifying potential plots and then letting someone else compose the music for new operas.

For those who may have forgotten, Harriet Tubman was the courageous black woman who, beginning in 1850, shepherded hundreds of slaves to freedom along the underground railroad. One of the first black women to speak out for women's rights, she helped establish two schools in the South for freed men (as well as homes for the aged and indigent) before dying, in poverty, at the age of 93. Her story offers an extremely compelling chapter in American history; one that practically begs for operatic treatment. And yet, after listening to a performance of this opera, my gut reaction is to suggest that Musgrave was not the right composer for the job.

Strong performances came from Vergil J. Smith as the show's narrator, Richard Hobson as Harriet's brother, Josiah, and Rochelle Ellis as their mother, Rit. Shelia Tate cut a handsome, authoritative figure onstage (I look forward to hearing this artist perform when illness does not prevent her from singing). Alas, while Skylight Opera Theater's productions are intensely theatrical, not even Victoria Bussert's energetic stage direction could rescue Harriet, The Woman Called Moses from the crippling effects of Musgrave's feeble score. To my mind, that's a genuine shame.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on January 17, 1991.

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