IN: Reviews

An Operatic Feast for the Common Man


bitesWhen ordering a multi-course chef’s menu, one gives complete trust to the kitchen staff to curate culinary surprises. Over this past weekend, Boston Opera Collaborative adapted this sensory metaphor in its 2nd annual “Opera Bites!” evening of eight ten-minute operas. In keeping with the company’s name, this immensely collaborative effort included six commissioned composers, seven playwrights, four music directors, four stage directors, thirteen singers, and a handful of instrumentalists. Each work captured a single scene, emotion, theme, or relationship, merging the classical, neoromantic, and musical-theater genres.

Longy’s Pickman Hall was transformed into a cabaret lounge Saturday with autumnal table-settings and complimentary wine and hors d’oeuvres. The audience prepared for the “Feast of 10 minute operas” with a relaxed casualness. The menu is here.

Two-Step, composed by Rhiannon Randle to a libretto by Lila Palmer and Daniel Solon, introduced us to this medium condensed in both its orchestration and content. Accompanied by a sole violinist anthropomorphizing wanderlust, the scene depicted the changes between two dichotomous characters in the span of a few minutes: the operatic, moving, world-traveler vs. the monotone, waiting, homebody. Through humorous declamations and the active Copland-esque gestures of violinist Liubomyr Senyshyn, the antagonist-to-adventure manages to be swayed and at last joins the other vocalist.

 Two-Step (vocalist Carley DiFranco and violinist Liubomyr Senyshyn (Dan Busler photo)
Two-Step (vocalist Carley DiFranco and violinist
Liubomyr Senyshyn (Dan Busler photo)

The next three works were accompanied by pianist alone. Composer Eva Kendrick’s American Flag adapted the satirical words of playwright Sylvia Reed, representing the perils of the America’s Iraq involvement with the confusion, regret, and indecisiveness from a Bachelor party hookup. Through the subtle accompaniment and Gershwin gestures, the simultaneously dense and comical nature of the situation is brought to the foreground strikingly and powerfully.

Adapting Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri, Jeremy Van Buskirk’s work by the same title brings us the climatic tension of Salieri by focusing on his jealously. Quick set changes and transitions between works were well executed throughout the performance, and the simple set design of harpsichord and ornate renaissance chairs captured the essence of the scene. By playing with classical tropes and Mozartian quotes, Van Buskirk crafted the 17th century restrained etiquette, with hints of sinister intentions arising in the accompaniment. The painful Mozart, sung by soprano Britt Brown aptly contrasted the envious tenor.

The wonderfully humorous She’s Fabulous by composer Tony Solitro and playwright Jack Neary concluded the first half with a behind-the-scenes look at the competitive jealousy of performers. The two vocalists, Rhaea DAliesio and Melanie Bacaling, embraced their characters by imbibing in this self-mockery. Filled with covetous indignation, two actresses converse during the intermission of a production in which neither of them were cast. In rapid sharp jabs, critiques, and self-promotion, these divas seem all at once familiar and ridiculous. The pianist Stephanie Mao captured the spastically dramatic and emotionally volatile music of the composer, whose music juxtaposed lush arias with brisk recitatives.

In Ondine, the composer Daniela DeMatos focused on conveying the emotional swells inherent in Garret Jon Groenveld’s text: love, romance, seduction all produced differing musical colors in conjunction with the changing scenic projector images. This work attempted to cover the entire narrative of this romance with the water nymph. Because of the intensely emotional drama, the work seemed to necessitate denser orchestrations, unfulfilled with just piano accompaniment; adding to this imbalance, the captivatingly expressive strength of the soprano seemed to overpower both the tenor and accompaniment.

With the addition of the flutist Nicholas Southwick and violist Lilian-Terri Dahlenburg into the texture, Tom Cipullo adapted a poem by the authentically New Englander William Carpenter in The Husbands. After four operas with merely piano accompaniment, the trio, led by the lively and lyrical pianist Patricia Au, provided a wider range of musical colors and interactive possibilities. Through beautiful neoromantic undulations and dreamlike passages, dancer Julie Leavitt portrayed the quaint adventures of a group of elderly women and their nostalgic reflections; the two vocalists acted as observing narrators, accentuating their enthusiasm through coalescing melodies. The admirable ensemble cohesion brought these individual characters and musicians into a unified narrative. At one moment flutist intensely focused on soprano Jessica Jacobs to produce a seamless unison response and accent to the poetry before delving into his own melodious solo.

The words of playwright Jon Jory found an appropriate home in Always. By examining the beginning and end of a modern romance simultaneously, a quartet of singers reflected this theatrical scene as a couple filled with fresh, blind, and idealistic love opposed the same couple’s entropic destination. All too relatable. As the piano accompaniment merely provided background soundtrack for most of this opera, the contrasts and contradictions were revealed through ironic harmonious parallels between the pair of couples, highlighting composer Jonathan Bailey Holland’s excellence in writing for voices contrapuntally. The wardrobe choices intensified this contrast to a humorous degree: business casual deteriorates to baggy jeans and sweatpants.

A Tall Order (Laura DellaFera and Dustin Damonte) (Dan Busler photo)
A Tall Order (Laura DellaFera and Dustin Damonte) (Dan Busler photo)

The uproarious A Tall Order, accompanied by piano and drum set, explored the complexities of a first date and the internal conflicts in deciding what to order. What are the psychological implications of ordering just the salad? The composer John Greer took this absurdly comedic narrative, bringing the music into the joke. The musical accompaniment introduced the ambience with the swing of a jazzy cabaret; through almost cartoony timings, the music associated Castanets with sensuality, passionate tango music with Chilean sea bass, and even an offstage chorus for moments of enlightenment, adapting to the tumultuous emotions of the woman. The vocalists Laura DellaFera and Dustin Damonte navigated the active choreography with theatrical flair and vaudevillian execution. This comic ordeal paralleled the humorous ending of the concert’s first half, and provided a delightful finish to the diverse program, like a crème brûlée with Spanish sherry.

As an admittedly irregular opera attender, much pleased me about BOC’s approach to contemporary opera. The robust crew of stage directors and often underappreciated librettists deserve praise for the success. In the contemporary classical ethos, some very strong dramatic and humorous moments emerged with surprising emotional power. Opera buffa tropes of unfulfilled romance, soprano arias, comic scenarios were strewn throughout.  Due in part to the prominent musical theater influence, opera seemed more relevant than ever.

David Stevens is a Boston-based saxophonist and woodwind doubler, recently graduated from NEC with a double master’s in saxophone performance and music theory. In addition to performing, he spends much of his time as an educator, arts administrator, and theorist.

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