Friday, November 23, 2007

New And Unusual Operas

While European composers from the 18th and 19th centuries have little trouble being heard, works which reflect what's happening in today's society elicit scant enthusiasm from the conservative opera audiences of today. Many opera lovers have developed a slave-like devotion to Verdi, Mozart, Puccini, Rossini, Bellini, Strauss and Wagner. An unfortunate side-effect of this phenomenon is their adamant refusal to pay attention to any operas which have been written after, say, 1925.

Which way is best for an opera company to serve itself, its community and the art form it represents? By reheating old classics and (by not always doing a very good job of it) giving audiences horribly substandard goods? Or by breaking new ground and presenting works which should be judged on a fresh and new basis. Last month, the contrast between these two artistic philosophies became too painful for words. As you might have guessed, I lean toward the latter plan of action. And with good reason.

While in Minneapolis, I attended an exhilarating triple bill of three new works produced by the Minnesota Opera's New Music-Theatre Ensemble. Arriving back in the Bay area, I attended the Oakland Opera's opening night of Verdi's La Traviata: an artistic fiasco which was so excruciatingly pathetic, so execrably below professional standards and (thanks to Johnathon Field's atrocious stage direction) so frightfully inept that I did something I almost never do. I left the theater after Act II convinced that even a microwaved burrito would have more artistic merit. If I never again attend an atrocity like Oakland Opera's Traviata, I could die a happy man.

This raises an important question about an opera company's artistic goals and community outreach. Oakland Opera's audience was certainly up for experiencing and supporting their company's production of La Traviata. And we should be happy that people are buying tickets and going to the opera. But if what they experience is one tiny step above a bad amateur community theater presentation, are they going to come back for more? Instead of dwelling on the dismal extremes of Oakland Opera's disaster, let's focus our attention on the new.


Because I haven't encountered too many operas which take place in prehistoric times, the thought of a chamber opera in which one soloist takes on the role of a meteor and the protagonist is named "Qfwfq" sounded pretty kinky. Based on a short story by Italo Calvino (from his Cosmicomics collection), Without Colors explores what happens to a character's love as the earth's atmosphere forms, colors begin to replace the drab grays of its previous environment and the planet's early inhabitants must adapt to a new world: a world with color.

While the philosophical debate triggered by Mac Wellman's libretto may not send anyone staggering out of the theatre in an existential daze, I was thoroughly entranced by Melissa Shiflett's score for cello, flute, piano and seven performers. Using simple but incredibly deft strokes, she created a musical environment for Without Colors which sounded acutely primordial yet highly theatrical. In a curious way, Shiflett accomplished something astounding by creating a musical theatre ambience which allowed the audience's imagination to fill in the blanks. Not an easy trick, but one which was crafted with great skill and sensitivity.

Without Colors is hardly the kind of opera which calls for bravura performances. However, James McKeel's Qfwfq, Kathryn Wright's Ayl and Joan Barber's Meteor offered nicely-etched cameos while Dan Dressen, Merle Fristad, Maria Jette and Cynthia Lohman provided a sense of balance as a chorus of, shall we say, prehistoric protozoa singing back-up.


While those who have seen the movie Heathers may have been shocked by its blackly comedic treatment of teenage suicide, Kim Sherman's Red Tide is notable for its intense theatricality. A 30-minute chamber opera scored for cello, saxophone, piano, accordion and three performers, Red Tide offers a disturbing look at an orphaned teenager's decision to commit suicide during a red tide (when algae levels are dangerously high) in the hopes of re-enacting the moment from his childhood when he was saved by a handsome and heroic lifeguard. It also gives audiences the most refreshing and obviously gay kiss to be seen on the operatic stage.

Red Tide is basically an opera about faith, one's need to have heroes and the right to believe in miracles. Paul Selig's libretto neatly captures the anguish of a fucked-up teenager desperately trying to find absolution while remaining unconscious to the gay love felt for him by his best friend in an oppressive Catholic school for boys. While Selig's words offer a wonderful fit to Sherman's music (and vice versa) the strength of Red Tide, as directed by Karen Miller, lies in its simplicity, directness and dramatic impact.

Stephen Kalm offered a fascinating portrayal of the unhappy, tortured Worm -- a love-torn young man with a gay crush on his best friend. Janis Hardy had an interesting cameo as the prophetic Bird Woman who convinces tenor Paul Pruitt's Lutece (the suicidal teenager) to live out his fantasy of drowning and being rescued by his ideal lifeguard. At the end of the opera, Pruitt stripped naked before walking into the sea of deadly algae. While his nudity was perfectly appropriate to the moment (and not the slightest bit gratuitous), I must confess that the young tenor brought a welcome touch of beefcake to the operatic stage. Given a choice, I'd much rather look at Pruitt's buns than Pavarotti's!

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on May 11, 1989.

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