Boston Opera Collaborative served up a flavorful first course from its seasonal menu this past Saturday in Cambridge. “Opera Bites”: A Feast of Ten-Minute Operas featured a fare of eight chamber operas by contemporary composers including such international headliners as Jake Heggie and Mark Adamo as well as notable artists less known outside musical-academic circles. Working without an orchestra, a revolving trio of music directors (Jean Anderson Collier, Patricia Au and Jessica Rucinski) provided accomplished and tasteful piano accompaniment. Making excellent use of relatively limited resources, BOC transformed Longy School of Music’s Pickman Hall into a cabaret space, replacing orchestra-level seating with tables where premium ticket holders could enjoy food and drink. Projected backdrops supplemented the sparse onstage props and set pieces, proving both economical and effective. Fueled by the unbridled enthusiasm of musicians and organizers alike, this ambitious attempt to bring fully staged new music works to a young audience in a relaxed, convivial setting proved largely successful.
Jake Heggie’s Again, reimagining the classic sitcom I Love Lucy as a Pirandelloesque nightmare set to music, opened the proceedings. Lucy (soprano Carley DeFranco) is threatening to leave the phantom zone of reruns in which the four main characters have languished for decades; it is up to her desperate fellow inmates to keep her from escaping. In librettist David Patrick Stearns’s imagining, the Ricardo family’s home life has deteriorated since the 1950s: Lucy sports a prominent black eye that goes troublingly without comment, even after Ricky (tenor Fran Rogers) explicitly references—and then acts upon—Jacky Gleason’s famous “Pow! Right in the kisser,” catchphrase from The Honeymooners. Heggie is known for a compositional language that relies heavily on allusion that borders on pastiche—here, that vocabulary showed itself in a variety of era-appropriate influences and even a quaint ragtime to underscore one of Fred’s (baritone Elijah Blaisdell) terrible jokes. The cast, rounded out by mezzo-soprano Krista Marie Laskowski’s Ethel, sang with vigor, and the appropriately abstract staging by Greg Smucker well suited this dark absurdist world.
Proving a frothy delight Ben Bierman’s Come to Spain, blurred the lines between dream and reality in depicting a caricatured American tourist couple fantasizing about exotic romance in foreign climes as embodied by the figure of a matador on a travel advertisement. As the matador, Scott Ballantine’s fresh-faced good looks belied a virile, full-bodied baritone voice, while the couple (tenor Dustin Damonte and soprano Allison Provaire) sang with amusing over-earnestness, each possessed of a clear sound and deft comic timing.
Camera Obscura by Jonathan Sheffer musicalized a short play by Robert Patrick in which two would-be lovers contact each other for the first time via a televised transmission broadcast from inside a dark room. One male and one female attendant mediate the conversation on either end as automaton-like representatives of a fully mechanized world. Soprano Megan Welker and tenor Mark Williams were nicely matched as the aspiring couple confounded by the constraints of the technology at their disposal. Welker in particular was touchingly sincere, delivering the line “you’re so beautiful and all you can do is yell at me!” to her counterpart with humorous yet heartfelt dismay, her voice sweet and bright yet somehow also plangent. The score invoked mechanization through jagged lines and repeated figures, yet also strongly recalled Ravel and Debussy (in particular, the Arabesque No. 1 in E Major for piano.) Despite its dystopian overtones, one couldn’t help but imagine this tableau as a neat metaphor for miscommunication between all lovers—with or without the interference of technical glitches or a totalitarian state.
Composer Anne Dinsmore Phillips employed jazz-infused figures (reminiscent, at times, of Henry Mancini) to depict two other potential soulmates in Tempo fuori del tempo. It began with a well-worn premise: a female New Yorker afflicted with wanderlust meets with an Italian male stereotype in an airport (Fran Rogers threw his robust, athletic tenor into the declaration of his hometown: “Roma!”) Though it appeared as if the story would head toward a comedic culture clash, it instead veered swiftly and bafflingly toward the sentimental as the two almost immediately determined they were made for each other. With no further ado, they flew off into the night, presumably unto happily ever after; remaining, as it were, “per sempre felici e contenti.” (It’s worth noting, incidentally, that the Italian used in the libretto seemed to be an odd pidgin mixture of lyrical and conversational.)
Wildean Epigrams made for an intriguing experiment in text appropriation which felt dramatically unsatisfying. Marjorie Merryman’s atonal, rhythmically adventurous score rearranges lines from Oscar Wilde into a domestic spat between a couple at a breakfast table. Mark Williams and Carley DeFranco volleyed their verbal hand-grenades in spiteful glee, yet the libretto’s consistent effort to work as many Wilde zingers as possible into a single exchange made the scene seem more like a line-motivation exercise in an acting class than a coherent theater piece. The only exception to this came at the end of the scene, when Merryman set a longer selection from The Importance Of Being Earnest; a petty argument over the relative heartlessness of eating muffins while distressed played just as well between spouses as it does between friends.
The Act told the story of a pair of married circus performers, a knife-thrower and his wife whose domestic unhappiness is revealed in the husband’s incremental loss of control during the couple’s onstage performances. The meandering chromaticism and merry-go-round waltz figures characterizing Lori Laitman’s score well suited the nightmarish scene, though H.L. Hix’s libretto was far less effective. Dramatically, the two singers had very little to work with, as the dialogue consisted primarily of expository asides to the audience. This theatrical inertia might have been remedied to some extent by creative staging, but alas, the blocking gave soprano Shannon Grace and tenor Michael Merullo little more to do than stalk around the stage and glare at each other.
The Sacred Wood was far more successful on all levels. Composer/librettist Richard Burke’s story of an encounter between two American tourists in Greece combined fantasy and reality with light comedy and situational drama to pleasing effect. Burke expertly married text to music, making words intelligible and sentences coherent, mimicking delivery of spoken English without losing the musicality of the vocal lines. What is more, the composer proved adept in building musical-dramatic arcs. Soprano Rhaea D’Aliesio and tenor Dustin Damonte made up the winning would-be couple; his blithe, irrepressible optimist played nicely against her more cautious, levelheaded realist. D’Aliesio is a talented actress with a natural stage presence; it is a shame that her sound was marred by flattened vowels, clouding her otherwise refreshingly organic line delivery.
Perhaps mimicking the relationships it depicted, Avow by Mark Adamo began with great promise and ended as a disappointing string of clichés. It portrays a neurotic, commitment-phobic couple (in our new century, are we aware of any other kind?) arriving at the altar with emotional baggage firmly in tow, both partners having failed to come to terms with their parents’ sub-par marriages. I must say that I’ve never seen a libretto go from mordant to maudlin in such short order. At the top of the opera the Celebrant (sung with gleaming tone and perfect deadpan delivery by Allison Provaire) welcomed “aggrieved mothers/relieved fathers/incredulous exes of various sexes” to the wedding, and “mistakenly” began to recite a requiem text in lieu of the wedding vows. By the halfway mark, however, the ghost of the groom’s father was delivering trite couplets (“let us not repeat the past/let us learn to make it last”) at the rate of about one in every two measures. Not to be undone by a less-than-stellar property, the adroit cast made the piece enjoyable. As the Ghost, Seth Grondin sang with a sumptuous bass-baritone while the charming Megan Welker avoided the traps lain by a role teeming with Mother-of-the-Bride stereotypes; the soprano managed to turn an irritating stock character into an consistent source of comic relief.
The performer-driven success of Avow distilled the success of the evening, and of the Boston Opera Collaborative itself, down to its essence. While the quality of the offerings on Saturday evenings was decidedly uneven, the manifest enthusiasm of cast and crew translated into an uncommonly relaxed, informal introduction to contemporary composers and promising young artists. It’s the kind of programming and concept that the present-day opera community so desperately needs in order to engage seasoned audiences, attract new ones, and keep the art form looking forward—companies in Boston and across the country might profit by BOC’s example.