Ann Beha Architects’ Student Life and Performance Center at New England Conservatory, which opened last September, provides a much-needed freshening for the student experience there. With dormitories, workshop spaces, gathering areas, ensemble rooms, and theaters, invitingly detailed with handsome materials including ceramic tile cladding that looks like domestic cedar shingles, it functions very much like a lively town square. But the edifice stands for a larger musical public as well. Last night this writer was among something like 200 people witnessing the first opera production in its Plympton-Shattuck Black Box Theater. It continues through Sunday.
An elegant glass and chrome staircase leads to a bright subterranean lobby containing many doorways, one of which opens into the new multi-purpose black box, which, on this particular night, was set up with a pit containing 15 players, raised stage and steeply raked seating. In this configuration, one needed to make a sharp right turn upon entering to avoid falling into the orchestra pit, and then double back to get to the seating area. With other seating arrangements such as arena, thrust, or transept, entrances can be more direct and graceful. And “black box” is not a misnomer. The roughly 40ft cube is featureless aside from the alternating sound-absorbing panels and lightly rusticated concrete blocks.
Leon Major had imagined a dramatic premise of having the characters step out of five iconic Edward Hopper paintings (represented in the handsome cover of the handout) and fleshing-out their lives. John Musto’s set Later the Same Evening,(2007) to Mark Campbell book. Chair of Opera Studies Joshua Major encouraged the singers to find a great variety of characterization, movement and expression, while Christina Todesco set the stage with a full-width framed screen and numerous moderately large, rising and falling picture frames. Period tables, chairs and 11 singers would fill out the space. Chris Hudacs lighted the proceedings with attention to mood and used some projections such as not-quite “Singing in the Rain” slanting downpour behind the requisite umbrellas, and an “TAMOTUA” window sign a la Hopper.
Campbell’s quotidian words, larded with sarcastic wit, worked well to establish the general mood of Cheeveresque misanthropy, broken relationships, missed opportunities, general malaise, and unlikely redemption— this being more the stuff of off-Broadway than grand opera. Musto set the speech to fragrant whiffs of Sondheim, Wagner, grand opera, 30s jazz, pop ballads, and chromaticism, never lingering on any long enough to bore us. Even a musical choo-choo train made a sonic departure from an imagined station. At times the conversational tone gave way to more dramatic set pieces for individuals and ensembles. A couple of these could worthily appear on recital programs.
Robert Tweten conducted in his NEC debut with energy, lightness, drama, and wit; whatever Musto asked for, Tweten and his accomplished band provided. Singers and pit always synced perfectly, and this is not easy with the complexity of preserving speech rhythms while making music. The sound of the orchestra spoke clearly in the room (I was sitting only three rows back).
The 11 student singers all possessed attractive instruments and showed confidence on the stage. English words challenged a couple, although Italian did not—the “Glitter and Be Gayish” aria from one soprano in high pout detoured us briefly, and very entertainingly, into opera buffo.
Vocal projection from the stage was inconsistent. When singing toward the audience from center stage, singers maintained clarity, but if they sang toward the wings (or where the wings would be), a hollow slightly disembodied quality resulted. Others sitting further back did not make that observation. Nor did the BMInt reviewer covering an earlier concert in this space with arena seating [HERE]. In my judgement we were sometimes hearing too many early reflections from the from side walls. Some fan noise from HVAC or projectors or lighting raised the noise floor perceptibly.
Black boxes with deep pits are in short supply here. As the conservatory lives with this theater and experiments with the mix of reflective and absorptive materials for best support of various types of performance and seating, they will no doubt find the space very useful indeed.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer