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American One-Act Operas Solid on Vocal Technique, Short on Drama


“Opera” is one of those elastic terms. Like hobby, or spare-time. Prima donnas donning Viking hats may be the broad stereotype, but nowadays, opera is musical theater operating out of the classical tradition. Lots of creative programming goes on under this guise.

This past weekend, Boston Metro Opera presented a group of one-act “operas,” all American, at St. John the Evangelist Church on Beacon Hill. A small cast (Ceceilia Allwein, Amy Dancz, Joshua May, Erin Mercuruio, Roselin Osser, Christopher Aaron Smith, Xavier Taylor, David Walther) cycled through the pieces while Aaron Likness stayed at the piano. They opened with Barber’s A Hand of Bridge (libretto by Menotti). It is exactly what the title indicates: two couples are together playing the game. As the hand unfolds, each player shares their internal preoccupations. They range from the banal (an attractive hat that Sally didn’t buy) to the burdened (Geraldine’s dying mother). There’s little drama in the room they share; the story is more how people in the same room can be in very different places.

The Face on the Barroom Floor, title on an actual painting in a Colorado bar, has inspired poetry, films, and an opera by Henry Mollicone. It presents parallel stories taking place in the same bar at different times. Both end with a fight over a woman and a gunshot. The music freely mixed styles. At one point, an actor walked over to the piano, tapped on it, and requested a change of mood: “How about something slow and easy, mister?” The diversity of material gave the opera an expansive feel, to the point where the music felt more decorative than connective.

Fables was a premiere, contributed by David Edgar Walther (who also sang in it). The biography on his website announces his accomplishments as a singer, composer, and powerlifter. His music was contrapuntal, just-dissonant-enough so to sound modern. It collected four of Aesop’s. Two involved a man and woman arguing over whether to spray for ants. There was also the Fox and the Raven and the Lion and the Mouse. Rather than be staged with actors, Joshua May and Xavier Taylor had a collection of stuffed animals and acted as puppeteers. It was a good, attractive idea, but just came off as “cute.” The whole performance had a jokey, ironic feel. It was hard to tell what made the composer and performers say, “This is a piece that we want to bring to the world.”

A fourth opera was to be featured, but last-minute licensing issues forced a substitution. Ten arias from different operas (Candide, Ballad of Baby Doe, Street Scene, The Old Maid and The Thief, Good Soldier Schweik, Vanessa, Susannah, Taming of the Shrew) were shared instead. The were mainly of the genre of reasons-why-others-don’t-understand-my-complex-emotional-state-and-how-that-inculcates-my-general-loneliness. What provides counterpoint in a larger piece can turn monotonous when strung together.

The venue was acoustically inappropriate for the concert. St. John’s is a slightly cavernous space. The piano often overwhelmed the singers and made it difficult to discern words. The singers all had solid vocal technique, but were less comfortable with being a character justifying his space onstage. There were a lot of exciting ideas presented in the program. However, opera is not just music: it’s musical theater.

Adam Baratz is a composer and pianist. He lives in Cambridge.

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