’‘Boston University’s 26th annual Fringe Festival under the auspices of the BU Opera Institute and the School of Theatre, opened its second week this past Friday with Ned Rorem’s idiosyncratic opera Our Town in a run at the CFA Concert Hall. I attended on opening night. Rorem’s work teeters on a dangerous line. Setting Thornton Wilder’s American classic to music threatens to undermine the original play. For good reason, Wilder refused to allow his major plays to be set as operas in his lifetime, even at the requests of Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. With Our Town the emotional potency resides in the universality and relatability of the human experience. It is not about a New Hampshire small town, but rather life itself. Operatic drama threatens to bloat and overwhelm this relatability by corrupting the intimate connection between stage and audience. It is within this foggy contradiction of mediums that both composer and all future performers must grope.
From the outset a philosophical contradiction existed between Rorem and Wilder. Rorem views himself esthetically as French, and was heavily influenced by the group of composers known as Les Six, whereas Wilder claimed his work to be “German in emotion,” citing Bach and Beethoven as examples. To pair a composer who denounced the German esthetic as superficially profound, and an author whose overpowering reaction to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony drove him to finish The Bridge of San Luis Rey would seem to result in cacophony, but it is this antithesis that Rorem plays upon. Vocalist Marin Sewell, as the catch-all Mrs. Soames, married these two disparate esthetics the best, straddling the line between operatic camp and theatrical believability, while still delivering a belting, but vitally playful and easy-to-understand vocal performance. Transporting a modest and unpretentious American town to the opera form, which is the antonym of modest and unpretentious, robs the characters of their personality. How can Emily Webb simultaneously be a timid girl and an opera diva? We get how that works in 19th -century grand opera, but in an intimate workshop production, we don’t expect that dichotomy. While other cast members, such as Marcus Huber as George Gibbs, enlivened their characters with commendable acting, Marin Sewell succeeded best in creating a convincing character while maintaining vocal virtuosity and understandable declamation. She retained the stereotypical small-town personality in spite of her breaking into diva song.
As an adaptation, Rorem’s opera works best in abstract ideas and moments of intense emotion. Transitions between acts are among the most compelling musical moments, as the music is perfectly suited to represent the movement of time and changing of tone. Act 1 ends with a simple and settled orchestral C major chord, serving as an apt bookend for heartwarming childhood. Act 2 then begins with a furious 12-tone line in the piano, both representing the sudden passing of time and the anxious excitement of the young marriage to come. Fittingly, the Boston University Chamber Orchestra, conducted by William Lumpkin, played best during these transitions. Musical and narrative agreement is not only beneficial for the audience, but also allows for better performance. The orchestra, even at its reduced size and placed in the back, ran the risk of visually dwarfing the actors. To represent an unassuming small town, the schematic set, designed by Sarah Lloyd, consisted entirely of ordinary chairs and tables. Compared to the understated mise-en-scène, the 41-piece orchestra held the most visual splendor and grandiosity on stage, thereby potentially undermining the story. While lighting and scenery tried to draw attention away from the musicians, through shadows and three eye-catching lit images of the town, the size and stately manner of the orchestra still demanded our eyes. To rectify this, the characters knew of the orchestra’s existence. Frequently the stage manager, played by Andrew Bearden Bowen, gestured to the musicians or glibly interacted with the conductor. Rorem’s music additionally helped the pit realize its own in-world character. Alongside explicitly diegetic music, such as Wagner and Mendelssohn’s Wedding Marches, the orchestra lived and breathed, coming alive instrument by instrument following a resolution. The wise decision to include the orchestra in the world of the characters synthesized well with Wilder’s metatheatrical play.
But most powerful, both in composition and performance was the third act. By this point the characters had completed their transformations into conscious, abstracted dead people. Here the music not only synthesized with, but also upped the ante of the original play. Music is best at explaining the unexplainable, and as such having the words of the dead be sung by a chorus rather than spoken by actors made the temporally impossible spiritually understandable. Lighting designer John Holmes helped the energy of this scene by illuminating Emily with a ghostly white light amidst the graveyard of the dead drowned in dampened blue. She still holds the naivety of life, and shines brightly, not yet to join the fully resigned dead. Emily’s gradual realization about the futility of time and the human experience became more forceful because of the music. Words can make us understand what Emily understands, but only music allows us to truly feel what Emily feels.
Kira Kaplan, the star of the show as Emily Webb, aided the impact of the third act. Her clear, piercing, coloratura virtuosity stole every scene. Even when belting high Bs or navigating challenging vocal runs, she maintained a captivating tone and clear declamation. Only Jacob O’Shea as Dr. Gibbs approached Kaplan’s level, and they both shared peerless singing with consistently comprehensible articulation. Kaplan’s fullness and tone provided essential parts to the story’s climax. Had one word become incomprehensible amidst her gargantuan singing then the realization of Emily Webb would have collapsed, but not once did she impede narrative intelligibility.
Within the orchestra, trumpeter Cassandra McDonald stood out. In addition to flawlessly executing many exposed, quiet, and high parts, she produced bright and pastoral tones. It is no surprise that the greatest musical moments happened when McDonald’s trumpet came to the forefront and harmonized with Kaplan’s voice. Mia Fasanello’s uplifting and nostalgic oboe which anchored the theme of Our Town, also proved fundamental.
Ned Rorem’s Our Town is an experiment, and perhaps not a wholly successful one. Even Rorem acknowledges in the score notes his uncertainty, writing, “Does it need to be sung? Am I the one to make it singable?” While it can musically stand alone as an opera, and occasionally enhances the narrative of the play, the intended impact of Our Town is still at its finest as Wilder’s original work. But Boston University’s Fringe Festival, 26 years in the running, deserves admiration for its continued commitment to championing new works and voices. After all, if no one performs non-canonical works, then how will anything new ever enter therein?