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Opera Tweets: Vinkensport with Houston Grand Opera

Nicole Heaston competing in Vinkensport.
Nicole Heaston competing in Vinkensport.
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In this never-ending pandemic with its restrictive social distancing edicts, there is hope. Who would have thought that the most promising spot would be the opera house? I turn your attention and your clicks to Houston Grand Opera's digital production, in association with Austin Opera, of composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek's imaginative Vinkensport, or the Finch Opera (2010) now streaming through Marquee TV on HGO's website.

If you want a primer on how to film opera while each singer is safely separately spaced, this one-acter is the sine qua non of how to do it and do it exquisitely.

Vinkensport is billed as comic opera, but there's so much more to it, thanks to the stunning co-direction from bass-baritone Ryan McKinny and E. Loren Meeker. Visually, it's a treat, a real movie. From the opening sequence, where each contestant is introduced in low angle by walking feet, to the final drone shot via a finch's bird's-eye view, the opera possesses grace, a dexterous fluidity, and great warmth. A few of the comic bits nudge perilously close to skit TV, but the heavy-handedness is gratefully lessened by the singing, Little's soft, easy-on-the-ears contemporary music, and the human charm of the story's characters.

The wide world of sports is besotted by many weird contests – Scottish caber toss, Finnish hobbyhorsing, Oregon's giant pumpkin regatta, German chess boxing, English cheese rolling – but nothing compares to Belgium's Vinkensport. Bird lovers compete while sitting in a row of chairs, their precious male finches boxed at their feet. After each tweet, the sportsmen chalk a mark on a long stick. After one hour, the winner, of course, is the one whose bird has tweeted the most. This is serious business and cheating can get you banned for life.

Little and Vavrek, frequent collaborators, have found a most delectable way to acquaint us to this strange community. There are six competitive trainers, known only by their bird's name. Though the opera runs under an hour, we get to know their dreams, frailties, and strengths in arias that sometimes cut back to their life at home. This editing keeps it fresh and novel. Every now and then we see the owners from the bird's point of view from inside the small cage as they're coaxed to sing out and sing often.

There's tweedy traditionalist Atticus Finch (bass-baritone Ryan McKinny), blue-haired punk rocker Hans Sachs who feeds his little tweeter cocaine (tenor Ricardo Garcia), the martini-sodden Sir Elton John (soprano Nicole Heaston), the nerdy Farinelli (soprano Elena Villalón), the repressed church lady Holy Saint Francis (soprano Alicia Gianni), the duty-bound daddy-obsessed Prince Gabriel III of Belgium (bass Kelly Markgraf), and the non-singing role of long-suffering husband/butler to Sir Elton John who keeps refreshing her glass (Richard Bado, HGO's chorus master.)

Little keeps the music light and airy, with a tinge of avian, delving into drama for Finch's final song or neighbor Saint Francis' unrequited desire for Finch. It's a chamber opera with wings.

Vinkensport. Streaming through November 22. For information, visit HGO.com to register. Free.

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