Glitter and Be Decadent

Last night’s opera gala did not happen in Kansas, rather in the People’s Republic of Cambridge’s Club Oberon. The festivities began as our bags were searched for smuggled-in food and drink before the bouncer cuffed us in vandal-resistant yellow wristbands to secure our entrée. Then the host for Guerilla Opera’s festivities welcomed us with admonishment to make sure we had an alcoholic beverage in hand from the cash bar for the toast to its 10th anniversary. Were we ever ready!

No long gowns or black ties covered the distinguished and/or motley crowd of geezer supporters and 30-something devotees of the company’s brand. Nevertheless, the atmosphere felt quite celebratory as the first of four scenes from past productions (with one to preview) began, with a long introduction from the company’s expert ensemble of seven noted soloists to a scene from Rudolf Rojahn’s Heart of a Dog [reviewed here]. Three singers entered with a puppeteer animating an articulated canine. Baritone Brian Church as the Doctor, tenor Patrick Massey as the Assistant and soprano Aliana de la Guardia as the Housekeeper, all on book though in character and fully engaged, gave a swinging and wily take in front of projections of the original production. Lines such “…elbow deep in excrement” gave some flavor of the charmingly vulgar touches in the staged version, without the attendant spattering.

In a subsequent panel discussion, founding member Mike Wallace usefully clarified the mission. Unlike other small local companies that reduce grand opera to fit diminished budgets and forces, GO exists as a contemporary-music ensemble with a bent for premiering vocal works tailored to its particular budget and forces. Thus they make no compromises in producing small-scale contemporary opera. But the resulting shows do pose the question of what exactly constitutes opera.

The word of course derives from the plural of Latin opus. As evolved it sometimes is so vague as to be naked without adjective: rock operas, jazz operas, comic operas, studio operas, grand operas, operettas, execrable operas, and concert operas. And is a concert opera an oratorio or a song cycle? Arias are songs, as symphonic movements are tracks (sometimes songs) in this miTube era. Perhaps an entirely new term is needed for what the Guerillas do. Lloyd Schwarz harrumphed and pulled at his beard when asked.

From Gallo by Ken Ueno [review here], bearded (why are they always?) countertenor Doug Dodson portrayed the castrato Farinelli, in the“Prolegomenon: Lisbon/Sendai 1750…”. Uncharacteristicly lyrical for this composer and for the rest of the opera, which places the character in plucked-chicken costume surrounded in a puddle of cheerios, this plaintive arioso to passacaglia accompaniment from Rane Moores’s bass clarinet and Stephen Marotto’s cello riffed attractively on Purcell and Lloyd Weber.

Joe the Plumber and Sarah Palin ranted (text from the 2008 presidential debate) in a Berliner Ensemble-style satire, Say it Ain’t So, Joe! by Curtis H. Hughes. Again, de la Guardia (she wore the wrong glasses) and Church (Olympic-level gum-chewing) took star turns in the prescient excerpt. An homage to Bach and a jazzy “God Bless America” led to a rockin’ coda from the band.

The diminishing and retarding lullaby from Beowulf, by Hannah Lash [review here], repeated the mantra, “Goodnight oh star, how bright you are, twinkle high above…” at least 50 times. Luckily the implausible percussion sounds from Mike Williams’s vibes, woodblocks and sundries, kept us from slumber.

“The Heart of a Dog” in 2010. Brian Church as the Doctor, Aliana de la Guardia as the Dog, and Patrick Massey as the Assistant (Anthony Scibilia photo)

BoCo composer Andy Vores’s Chrononhotonthologos, which is inked to debut in the fall, adapts as its libretto Henry Clay’s (1734) “…most tragic tragedy that was ever tragedized by any tragedian.” To these players the composer’s flexible methods seem ideally suited. Vores told the audience that he adored the constraints placed on him by writing for a small ensemble of peculiar instruments. He didn’t say the singers were peculiar, although they themselves told us so later. Vores also will offer optional parts for a satellite ensemble that he hopes will comprise 20-40 BoCo students. Sounding and acting like medieval buskers, the singers fronted a bawdy band of chortles and chuckles personified by a popgun, a toy piano, and the amazing Philip Stäudlin’s shrieking sopranino sax. [He once played Winterreise in Hoch Deutsch on a tenor sax; reviewed here.]

Guerilla Opera vitally fills a niche in Boston’s diverse lyric scene; sporting operamanes have much to thank them for. And a great many did, as the party continued at Grafton Street into the wee hours. Or so we heard.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.