New Opera: The Leader May Go the Distance

The cast of The Leader at Opera in the Heights.
Photo by Pin Lim
The cast of The Leader at Opera in the Heights.

Opera in the Heights' New Works Festival, a two-weekend presentation of world premieres has a winner in The Leader. I believe this one will have a full afterlife.

Composer Karim Al-Zand teaches at the Shepherd's School of Music at Rice University, and to judge by his work here, he must be a very fine teacher.

Adapting Eugene Ionesco's absurdist short play (1953) about depersonalization and fanatical devotion to an unseen charismatic leader, Al-Zand keeps the avant-garde front and center. The music is thick with irony as a low clarinet insinuates, fluttery flutes depict the young lovers, shimmering strings keep the energy abuzz, and a muted trumpet fanfare signals each sighting of the illusive leader. It's modern music, for sure, but it's grounded in swirly tonality with its clever orchestration and inherent energy.

The announcer (baritone Mark Diamond, in commanding voice) keeps reporting and repeating that the Leader is Coming, or He's Almost Here, or He's Kissing Babies, or He's Having His Pants Pressed. The Female Lover (Lindsay Russell), the Male Lover (Zachery Avery), Female Admirer (Megan Berti), and Male Admirer (Jason Zacker) breathlessly await his coming and run about to catch any glimpse of him. The lovers instantly fall in love and seal their ardor by singing, “Let's Go to the Market and Buy Some Eggs.” You must remember this is absurdist theater, and linear sense is verboten as if by fiat.

After all the waiting and the live news reports projected overhead, a very clever touch, the Leader finally appears. In trench coat and bowler hat, he strides on – without a head – raises his hand as if to speak, and quickly strides off. The people are dumbstruck. They make excuses immediately for the blank space under his hat. “He's got genius,” they exclaim. In a final quartet, the five amaze themselves because they don't know each other's names. We wonder if they even know their own.

The Leader has true finesse and sprightly atmosphere. It's still too long, even though it plays about 40 minutes. Repeating absurdities can drive you crazy, but director Cara Consilvio surprises with wry little comic touches that keep the mood bright and silly.

But it is certainly a poke in the eye to totalitarians and citizens' blind allegiance to them. Look what you must give up, both Ionesco and Al-Zand insist, when you follow a leader who's only a symbol. Where's your self?

With a bit of re-scoring, Al-Zand's little piece of avant-garde opera will be a worthy addition to the rep. It could be the perfect appetizer before those grand stuffy one-act verismos, Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana or Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. Delightful.

Composer Anthony Brandt and librettist Neena Beber's Kassandra is terribly earnest in subject and music. It is stark, not especially exciting, but hits all the politically correct contemporary notes as it riffs on #meToo and global climate change. Mixing these topics doesn't quite meld.

Slyly using the myth of Cassandra as base, the authors push the story into today's headlines. Some type of inventor, Kassandra is exceptionally brilliant with phenomenal powers of intuition and an ability to see patterns and natural rhythms. Sung by soprano Penelope Shumate with power but without much vocal beauty, she also looks great in her stylishly tailored pants suit. She builds what she calls the Antikythera which can predict the weather. Her male colleagues (tenor Albert Stanley, mezzo Megan Berti, bass-baritone Jason Zacher) belittle her. Women have no power in the world of men. Her benefactor, Apollo (bass Christopher Besch, as deep-dish exemplar of toxic masculinity), puts the make on her, but when she rebuffs him, she's fired and belittled all over again. They savage her reputation and now it's impossible to get a job. She rails about the impending universal catastrophe of earthquake, flood, and volcano, but no one believes her. Like antique Cassandra, she sees the future, but is never believed.

This is heady stuff, even for opera. It's ultimately unsuccessful because of Brandt's spiky, edgy music that is the bane of contemporary opera music. There must be an edict etched in stone in every music conservatory that commands the banishment of anything pleasing. Resolved chords are forbidden, tonality is shunned. Most is shrill, psychotic in feeling. How is it possible to describe a character's emotional state when everything sounds forced and jagged. It's all the same – love, hate, jealousy. We're screamed at. It's off putting and throws us out of the story.

Kassandra does all of the above. Even with its projected pictorial flourishes screened on the background, we don't warm to Kassandra or her plight because we're besieged by music that's so unrelatable. If you want a polar opposite example, listen to Strauss' Salome or Elektra. These works were the most modern music of their time, the early 20th century, and both describe psychotic characters, but they shimmer in despair, are volcanic in outburst, and are undeniably effective theater.

Kassandra and the Festival's third premiere, the low-rent comedy Yeltsin, will not go far. As usual, OH maestro Eiki Isomura leads a splendid orchestra, finding the goofball comedy in Leader and whipping them into an appropriate ecological frenzy in Kassandra. These are certainly interesting experiments, and each has musical qualities that open our ears, but I'm putting my money on Al-Zand's The Leader. A definite leader of the pack.

Kassandra and The Leader continues at 7:30 p.m. February 29 at Opera in the Heights, 103 Heights Boulevard. For information, call 713-861-5303 or visit operaintheheights.org. $34.50 – $84.50.