Little can more deeply affect us than when we witness a gifted singer standing alone on a blank stage. When a black artist intones the spiritual question, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”, the power can be right up there with the concluding songs in Winterreise and die schöne Müllerin
American Repertory Theater brought American Modern Opera Company’s “Were You There,” a spiritual-based meditation on black victims of police violence, to the Loeb Drama Center last night. This third installment of the company’s inaugural weekend of “reinventing opera” worked its most potent spells when it allowed the lustrous and emotionally compelling baritone Davóne Tines direct interaction with his audience—not surprising considering the way he has taken the San Francisco Opera world by storm after stints at Harvard and Juilliard.
Essentially set up for the long run of Sense and Sensibility, the house on this otherwise dark Monday was divided into a pair of deeply raked seating areas with a long, narrow performing transept in between (forcing Tines to pirouette in order to avoid singing to the wings), set with baby grand, single folding chair, and a couple of dozen bare bulbs hanging dark. After he entered in a smart sportscoat and jeans, and pianist Michael Schachter took his seat, “Leave me, loathsome light,” from Handel’s Semele, opened what seemed like a conventional vocal recital.
Tines immediately made manifest the reasons for his critical acclaim. The man possesses a stirring instrument at the service of an engaging personality immersed in the poetry and musical lines of his role. In this case, though, over Schachter’s clean but uninflected and decidedly unorchestral accompaniment, he seemed to bend Somnus’s comic paean to sleep into an angry, yet ornamental (wonderfully rolled “Rs”) screed against the power of light. Rather than falling asleep at the end, Tines then paced around the stage reciting a litany of victimization.
“Were you there in the night of February 26, 2012, when a 17-year-old boy from Miami was shot, on purpose, by a neighborhood watch volunteer?” he asked, and where were we for several other instances of such injustice? We were certainly there with Tines when he followed up his spoken catalog aria with a spellbinding a cappella rendition of “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” To these ears, though, his overly melismatic approach evoked contemporary gospel churches more than the affecting plea of a suffering slave for memory and witness. Perhaps it’s understandable today that Tines channeled anger more than remorse. But the late Robert Honeysucker’s renditions made us feel we all bore responsibility for the murderous sin of the Passion [I presented him three times in the context of a Palm Sunday concert / meditation here].
And the scatty accompaniments for some of the other songs further vitiated the impact. Wisely, the piano remained silent for much of the show, giving the stage fully to Tines. Schachter had his moment, though, in Matthew Aucoin’s jazzily evocative “A Clear Midnight” (the only song and composer identified in the printed notes), set to romantic stanzas celebrating himself from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; the words and music, though, felt incongruous with the evening’s theme:
This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.
Zack Winokur’s minimal stage business included bulbs being lit (has he seen the star-keeper scene in Carousel?) and pulsed along with a simulated reed organ drone, to underscore the suffering. Tines knelt before a folding chair which evidently personified someone, threw his sportscoat down, and collapsed said chair before the 40-minute show climaxed when Tines sang “We Shall Overcome” while lying on his back on the cold concrete floor. The emotionally spent singer then encouraged the audience/choir to preach to him, and one another, in “Amazing Grace.”
In the aftertalk, which ran almost as long as the show, the volunteer speakers made abundantly clear that this audience was amazingly grateful but already converted. Where else, one person asked, should the artists take this show where its message will bring about change?
So have opera and the vocal recital died? Hardly; close your eyes as time stops for Fritz Wunderlich then or Bryn Terfel now. Do we need to reinvent opera as this presenter suggests? That, too, is redone for every age. Consider this absolutely terrifying music video by Norman, or this opera scene by Verret and Vickers, or this imaginatively staged recent Cav from Salzburg. It’s all good. A suggestion, therefore: consider saving the preaching for places other than the concert stage.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer