Watching Opera Vista's exhilarating inaugural program last weekend (June 21–24), one thing's certain: In the contemporary world of opera, the fat lady's still alive. In the dark decades since Richard Strauss and Benjamin Britten, the last truly great opera composers, she's supposed to have swooned, taken to her divan and even been on life support. But judging by what we heard from the five composers whose excerpted works comprised the weekend festival competition along with two complete pieces performed out of competition (opera master Samuel Barber's A Hand of Bridge and Texas composer James Norman's world premiere Wake) the reports of her demise have been greatly exaggerated.
This was the classiest American Idol you could imagine, even to the trio of "judges" (all accomplished musicians) who offered their criticism and advice to the participants. Copying the hit TV show, the audience got to pick its favorite piece. The award: a full production of the winning entry in its entirety next season by Opera Vista. Barnevelder's black box studio was inspiringly packed with opera fans, a welcome sight indeed for any contemporary opera these days. If Opera Vista's artistic director/co-founder Viswa Subbaraman continues on such a high, future full houses are assured, and we can look forward to some exciting nights at the opera.
With all due respect to the talented competitors, the most accomplished piece was old pro Barber's ten-minute 1959 chamber work, with libretto by equal pro Gian Carlo Menotti. Four friends absently play bridge while they reveal their inner dreams, desires and demons. In this rich work, jazzy blues highlight the mundane, while soaring lyrical passages delineate the quartet's inner soliloquies. Bill (tenor Daniel Buchanan) rhapsodizes over his mistress; his wife Sally (mezzo Melissa Fife) lusts for a hat with peacock feathers; loveless Geraldine (soprano Lynelle Rowley) laments her mother's illness; her husband David (baritone Brian Speck) gets off on fantasy sex scenes with nubile girls and boys. In the world of the ruthless, love gets trumped. It's a perfectly formed musical short story, condensed and highly stylized.
James Norman's Wake is not a pretty picture. A gritty dissection of the low-rent world of druggies, it's a grunge take on La Vie de la Bohème; obsession, whacked-out bliss, lies and needle tracks swirl in a narcotic haze through Anthony Suter's verismo libretto. A lot swirls through Norman's music too much, really. All those psychotic rhythms and slashing discords tire us out. There's no denying the power and energy in the work; by the end, we're as beat up and strung out as the losers on stage. As ex-addict Brooklyn, who now sells her chemical wares "for other people's miseries," mezzo Misha Penton gave a mesmerizing presence, struggling to stay clean and fending off the advances of hopped-up ex-lover Jason, plaintively sung by tenor Michael Walsh. When Jason introduces naive new girlfriend Katie (an overstretched Megan Hanson the role's awfully high, even for her ethereal soprano) and attempts to get her hooked too, Brooklyn realizes how she can save Katie from becoming another of the living dead. The shattering conclusion is strikingly scored to throbbing horns, strings going into tune and violent flutters from the reeds. Perfect music for a junkie.
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While it's foolhardy to evaluate an entire opera based upon a 15-minute excerpt, the five "semifinalists" painted with bold, multicolor strokes using diverse, cutting-edge themes that were nothing if not Serious. Beth Wiemann's Deeds was an earnest, if slightly dull, eco-opera set in Maine, with evil corporate raiders bribing an Indian leader for the tribe's fishing rights. Gary Noland's cacophonous Café Ritardando was a puckish exercise in musical bedlam. Bits of Mozart and Strauss collided with six soloists, who were cued by the conductor with flash cards to sing their nonsense text like a "valley girl," or "operatic," "macho" or with "German accent," while the audience was instructed to make noises like a chicken, pig or sheep.
A compelling antiwar piece, David T. Little's multimedia Soldier Songs, an oratorio-like song cycle, powerfully juxtaposed the Marine Corps creed ("my rifle is my friend," "without my rifle I am useless") against a soldier's graphic retelling of a hideous roadside bombing. And biting irony had its day with Abigail Al-Doory's Tonya and Nancy: The Opera, a fantasy about the media circus that erupted when trailer trash Tonya Harding bashed America's skating sweetheart Nancy Kerrigan before the 1994 Olympic Games.
The most adventurous of the lot in both music and libretto was R. Timothy Brady's poignant, highly poetic Edalat Square, a disquisition on the torture and hanging of two Iranian teenage boys for homosexuality. With keening strings and an overwhelming performance by Vanessa Beaumont as the wailing, distraught mother, Brady used almost calligraphic musical motifs to limn both the intolerance of Shari'a law and man's inherent divinity. Prodigiously talented young Brady is the composer to watch. He may prove to be grand opera's future.
The festival's winners: a tie between Soldier Songs and Edalat Square. The audience is never wrong.