Quick, in the next five seconds, name three things more popular than opera!
I guess that was easier than I thought.
Opera—beloved with reckless abandon by legions of devotees yet mostly ignored outside those circles—suffers from an image problem, partially self-inflicted, and it’s one many genres of so-called “high art” face. Namely, the notion that one must be in the know in order to feel welcome around people who get it and fully appreciate what you’re taking in. (The three concepts are intricately linked: audiences must also feel welcome in order to appreciate fully, must fully appreciate in order to be in the know, and so on and so forth.) Unfamiliar languages, Byzantine plots, caterwauling sopranos and brooding baritones are all losing competitors to (perhaps) more easily digestible water cooler fare served up at multiplexes and streamed via Netflix across the nation. Yet, as the popularity of television shows like Breaking Bad, House of Cards, and Orphan Black attest, it’s not as if Americans are resistant to complex storylines. Also, everyone digs time travel and fancy costumes. Truth be told, we’re living in a Golden Age of commercial art, one which shares with opera its sense of spectacle, yet does not share its ratings, excepting in the niche success of the Met Opera HD broadcasts to theaters.
It’s precisely this problem that Boston-based musical entrepreneur Julia Noulin-Mérat set out to confront with #IAMOPERA (pre-hashtagged for the social media set), staged at the American Repertory Theatre’s Club Oberon on Monday night. (The ready-to-go hashtag reveals the populist motivations behind the venture, yet the obvious follow-up to performers claiming “they are” opera is audience members wondering whether they’re entitled to feel the same. How about calling the event #YOUAREOPERA and sharing the love?)
Naming rights aside, Noulin-Mérat’s event came to our bar-tables as sampler plates on which 13 Boston-area opera companies revealed a taste of the aesthetic each has to offer, while functioning more broadly as a showcase of the diversity of the local scene. A pre-performance video shoutout from Marc Scorca, President of Opera America, to “the small, energetic, entrepreneurial companies” set the room buzzing.
Opera On Tap, known for presenting opera in bars and cafes, and whose self-proclaimed mission of intending “to shake things up but not stir them,” kicked off the evening with a sampler of their own, featuring six appealing singers (notably Abigail Krawson, so passionate, free and giving onstage) performing a few unconnected pieces, including the obligatory “Toreador Song” from Bizet’s Carmen. Boston Opera Collaborative then presented a well-staged snapshot, with subtitles, of Massenet’s Les letters des Werther. Heather Gallagher’s lovely mezzo-soprano was infused with regret; tenor Salvatore Atti’s authoritative presence was buttressed by his exquisite vocal control.
This reviewer had a more difficult time warming to Juventas New Music Ensemble’s overwrought (albeit ambitious) The Little Blue One, a new work by composer Dominick DiOrio. Like a number of other pieces over the evening, it felt aimed at initiates—“opera written for people who like to sing opera,” if you will—yet perhaps not musically distinctive enough to garner much interest for those outside the loop. The performers were thoroughly committed; I particularly enjoyed Maggie Finnegan’s vivacious Arrangiarsia, who enjoyed fine physical chemistry with Kim Lamoreaux’s spritely and well sung Azzurina. Yet this piece felt simultaneously too long to sustain dramatic interest, and too short for the audience to garner genuine sympathy for the relatively cartoonish characters.
Boston Conservatory, performing excerpts from An Italian Girl in Algiers, New England Conservatory, with Die Fledermaus, and Boston University, with bits from Don Giovanni, all played things fairly conservative in terms of selection, staging, and aesthetic. (One company employed a lineup of singers spread horizontally across the stage, which viewed in the context of some other very thoughtful uses of the space, struck me as the ultimate in “mailing it in” staging.) One might expect relative blandness coming from academic training programs focused on teaching the basics and standard repertory. Yet for this particular event, companies who embraced the potential for artistic risk ultimately seemed to fare better. Of the fiercely talented students, most likely, young professionals shoring up graduate performance degrees, I particularly enjoyed NEC soprano Jacquelyn Stucker, whose performance of a gorgeous aria from Die Fledermaus felt equal doses honest, simple, and sumptuous.
The topic of simplicity leads me to a small digression about acting in opera; can someone advise male performers who default to what I call “the masculine opera posture” (chest pushed forward, arms stiff, hands curled at the wrist, ready to pounce) that human beings don’t really stand like that? (Seeing performer after performer in allegedly far different dramatic contexts employ this position only underscored its prevalence.) I understand that opera purports to be an expansion of traditional drama, and also that there are enormous physical considerations demanded of singers, yet there remains a stark difference between making a conscious physical choice onstage, and taking on a stock physicality because that’s how other singers do it. Further, singers whose hands instinctively rise at either side, employing parallel gestures to indicate they’re ‘about to get emotional’ would be well served by developing a richer gestural language. Performers like Stucker and Finnegan (and a few others) who rejected stock clichés, singing from a place of physical freedom, simplicity, and emotionally motivated movement, were by far the easiest to watch and believe.
OperaHub’s eager, effervescent staging of a scene from Heinrich Marschner’s Der Vampyr (adapted by John J. King) provided a much-needed change of staging and energy. This company was by far the best of any at embracing the unusual physical dimensions (and limitations) of the space; credit Christie Lee Gibson for the staging. Deftly employing the bar behind the audience, the cast seemed to tear into the lusty fun of the Cockney dialects and wanton wenches. (I thought to myself: “Harmony singing about the wonders of cognac and Guinness? This I can get behind.”) Yet in an ambitious performance that could have gone disastrously wrong, the execution was thrillingly crisp; I would have easily believed that this cast performed nightly at Oberon. Impeccable diction, projection, and commitment emanated from all, but I’ll single out pretty wench Heather Gallagher, revealing tremendous acting range (I didn’t even recognize her from her earlier stint in Werther), supple voice, and infectious command of the stage.
Closing the first “act” was a vignette that embraced the irreverent aesthetic of the evening better than any other. Boston Lyric Opera’s Heather Johnson and Matthew Worth turned in a genuinely funny, revelatory rendition of the Rigoletto quartet “Bella Figlia Dell’Amore” as a duo, both performers switching roles moment to moment by manner of a pair of glasses and a feigned hunchback. We like opera that pokes fun at itself and (especially) at the pretensions of grandeur embedded within the genre, don’t we? The audience roared its approval. In addition to ravishing singing, these performers seemed to have a real desire to share something of themselves, an unmistakable quality perhaps impossible to teach, yet something audiences crave. It felt like a summer camp sketch performed by the most talented kids in camp, and I imagine it was the most talked-about piece of the evening.
Guerilla Opera opened the second half with some of the more alluring, refreshing sounds of the night: vibraphone, alto saxophone, and bass clarinet swooshing around some gorgeous coloration seemingly inspired by avant-garde jazz, then singers joining onstage as equal partners with the only live instrumentalists heard all evening. (Excluding, of course, the excellent – and literally, unsung – pianists.) A few electronic sounds appeared and provided a lovely contrast to the perhaps overly 19th century flavor of the evening; was that the sound of recorded crickets? Aesthetically, one wonders how much less restrained this music might sound if the composer encouraged the singers to be as overtly influenced by the exploratory instrumentalists sharing their stage as they are by “proper” opera singing. (Vocal performers like Theo Bleckmann and Meredith Monk, no stranger to the world of new opera, provide models for this.) That said, all performers seemed fully committed to the aesthetic of Let’s Make A Sandwich, which resembled perhaps a 21st century Trouble in Tahiti in its chamber setting and embrace of (some) musical elements contemporary to its time.
By this point, what was promised as a two-hour performance had already exceeded that window, with another four companies yet to perform. (A number of companies could have received the same promotional effect in half the time they spent onstage; given that some companies obviously stayed within some pre-ordained time limit, those who did not came off a bit self-indulgent.)
Opera Brittenica ably performed a musically challenging scene from Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, though some odd staging choices combined with the increasingly late hour continued to suck the energy out of the room. Because we were given no context, it was impossible for those who didn’t already know the piece instantly to surmise what was going on dramatically. (Thus, companies who employed supertitles were wise.) While singing, the actors performed choreography which came off looking more like synchronized swimming (or was that fake sewing?) than the embodiment of real characters. Further, an onstage gentleman “conducting” the pianist (who didn’t appear to pay him much mind) was an optical distraction. Similarly, MetroWest Opera’s Hansel and Gretel seemed to feature more gifted singers tasked with churning out more “insider” fare for already-converted opera fans. Though this aesthetic obviously appeals to some, dare I offer that music this diatonic and harmonically static seems almost unforgivably cutesy and even banal? Further, with respect to the rather dated drama, I found myself asking: Why do this piece? What’s the urgency? Why should I care?
The evening concluded with Odyssey Opera’s entry, a sumptuous voicing of Pierrot’s Tanzlied from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, what a tongue-in-cheek reviewer might call “the opera Mahler never composed.” Baritone Tom Meglioranza sang powerfully and expressively, utterly musically and emotionally connected to the text, proving the oft-repeated, seldom-followed stage dictum that “less is more.” This was also (by far) the shortest excerpt of the evening; paradoxically, the brevity left me wanting more and I look forward to seeing the whole work at Jordan Hall on Saturday night. (Perhaps “less is more” might be applied to opera, and to this entire event, as a whole?) Kudos to the event organizers, company producers, and uniformly excellent performers; for a town historically not favored by successful opera companies, Boston is at this moment in time very fortunate to have such a thriving and diverse opera scene. We should all look forward to seeing and hearing more work from each of these 13 companies.