2012 VOX Contemporary Opera Lab
New York City Opera/OPERA America New Works Forum
8th November, 2012
What isn't opera?
The VOX Contemporary American Opera Lab plays a critical role in presenting excerpts from new operas to an increasingly large audience, in the hope that they will appeal to those in a position to produce the works in their entirety. VOX boasts a remarkably high success rate with 40% of their showcased works going on to be professionally produced. VOX’s 13th showcase on Thursday night at the Skirball Center included excerpts by James Stepleten, Evan Meier, Osnat Netzer, Moto Osada, Christopher Weiss and John Zorn. It was an inspiring evening, but also somewhat puzzling, as there were two submissions which would not pass my own baseline definition of opera. More on that later.
James Stepelton’s adaptation of Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening was perhaps the least successful offering of the evening. The composer apparently rejected three librettists before settling on Andrew Joffe. My advice would have been to keep looking. The libretto was desperately simplistic, repetitive and far too explanatory. As the character of Edna drowns herself at the end of this work, not only do composer and librettist employ the twee device of having the ocean call her name, (what is it about a baritone singing “Edna, Edna!” at octave intervals that evokes the ocean?) but Joffe has her describing her surroundings, explaining what she is doing instead of telling us how she is feeling. In a full staging, we would not need the scenes to be described thus:
“Here I am again
Where it all began
And the sea
Where first I rose
And was awakened”
“ … Here I stand
Naked before the sea
A newborn creature in a newborn world”
Stepleton’s music did the singers no favors. He utilized the extreme top of the vocal range to an excessive degree and wrote relentlessly long lines in the passaggio. There was seldom any rhythmic support for the vocal line within the orchestration, which would lead to a logistical problem were the work to be staged. If a meter changes in silence, what choice does the singer have but to be glued to the conductor for the next entry?
Evan Meier’s The Last Act of Revolution is based around the suicide of Red Army Faction militant Ulrike Meinhof. Meier shows some real finesse in his underscoring of the vocal writing. His music has a consistent pulse which does not draw unnecessary attention to itself. The vocal writing is at the forefront, as it should be. I would have liked some more variety in terms of note value. Ending every expansive line with a long, held note is tiring for the singer, and begins to interfere with the comprehension of the text. However, Meier does mix it up in other ways; there are welcome moments of unison singing and a full use of the middle and bottom of the vocal range.
The libretto by Luke Richmond was at its strongest when not being explanatory. The better moments rang true as conversation between comrades, the weaker moments used the dialogue to try and educate us too much. As with the previous work, I would encourage this librettist to imagine all that a good stage production could achieve for him, without him having to waste precious words and turn his characters into tour guides or plot-pointers.
The Wondrous Woman Within, by Osnat Netzer, was all that she intended it to be, as described in her brief introduction video. Based on the play of the same name by Hanoch Levin, this presentation was the epitome of charm. Netzer’s music is the definitively modern, in that it creates a new soundscape. Of course, we have heard orchestration employing accordion, found objects and ukuleles before, but Netzer’s use of them seems to transport us to a setting which is both evocative of the ridiculousness of the human condition, and anchored in the mundane. We can easily picture not just one staging of the work, but any number of settings, interpretations and castings. This to me defines this piece as art — its capacity for infinite reinterpretation.
This excerpt was beautifully performed by soprano Kathryn Guthrie and baritone Jesse Blumberg, both of whom took the notes way off the page and played with them to their heart’s content: truly a pleasure to watch. The audience screamed with laughter, and audibly sighed with compassion. Such an immediate response upon the first hearing of a work speaks volumes for Netzer’s understanding of the voice as an instrument, and of opera as a dramatic form. She also wrote the libretto, a fizzing, spitting, sexy text which she sets with oodles of melisma. This kind of writing sets a vocal artist free, leaving them the necessary space for virtuosity.
After the interval came three works of great contrast. Moto Osada’s Four Nights of Dream was operatically written: orchestral writing which sounded descriptive of a “setting”, vocal lines which interacted with each other as one might expect from characters in a play. However, the material itself (a series of explorations of the sub-conscious whilst dreaming) seemed like questionable material for an opera. My defining question in this case is, “Would the work be enhanced by staging and costumes?” I can’t quite imagine a staging of this work lending it a truer form than a simple performance of the music.
Osada wrote some beautiful vocal harmony. His libretto showed great craft and sat very comfortably, particularly in the voice of Joshua Jeremiah as Samurai. In answering the question put to each composer in the program, “Why write opera?” Osada writes : “A great opera scene extracts the very essence of the defining moment or the most beautiful moment in life.” I would be genuinely excited to hear a future work by this composer which, by choice of subject matter, lends itself more fully to this ideal.
At this late stage of the evening, Christopher Weiss’s In a Mirror, Darkly fills the auditorium with a panacea of romantic lyricism. The work consists of three acts, each telling a complete story. The idea is intriguing, but I longed for a more relevant choice of subject matter.
The first section, based on The Lady of Shalott was pure Korngold, but hey! What better music to accompany Elaine’s final journey downstream from Camelot? Soprano Kerri Marcinko was featured throughout the evening. Technically impressive and displaying real musical gravitas, she seemed at her happiest singing Weiss’s spun-silk melodies. Music which is beautiful to sing certainly sets the audience at ease as well, but Weiss had more than one colour up his sleeve. He should consider his mastery of lyricism to be a foundation upon which he can extend in more innovative directions.
Finally, The Holy Visions by the evening’s best-known composer, John Zorn. This work, based on the life of 12th-Century mystic Hildegard von Bingen, was both mantric and totemic. Stunningly realized by Abby Fischer, Kirsten Sollek, Martha Cluver, Jane Sheldon and Mellissa Hughes, this work for a capella female quintet astral-travelled through the musical realms of liturgical history, tastefully referencing moments of Manhattan Transfer, and culminating in an exhalation of pure, transcendent Zorn. The performance was so exhilarating that I truly hate to quibble. But once again: opera? No. But only because the work simply would not be enhanced, (nor would it be entirely feasible, logistically) in an operatic staging. I am no stickler for traditional narrative by any means, but some form of narrative, there must be. Otherwise, what isn’t opera?
Bottom line: I predict another 40% success rate for this group of works, which makes it a genuinely thrilling evening to have witnessed.
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Composer: James Stepleton / Librettist: Andrew Joffe
with Kelvin Chan, Kerri Marcinko, Alex Richardson
The Last Act of Revolution
Composer: Evan Meier / Librettist: Luke Richmond
with Charlotte Dobbs, Joshua Jeremiah, and Kerri Marcinko
The Wondrous Woman Within
Composer and Librettist: Osnat Netzer
with Jesse Blumberg and Kathryn Guthrie
Four Nights of Dream
Composer and Librettist: Moto Osada
with Audrey Babcock, Jesse Blumberg, Daniel Curran, Kelvin Chan, Charlotte Dobbs, and Joshua Jeremiah
In a Mirror, Darkly
Composer: Christopher Weiss / Librettist: S. O’Duinn Magee
with Audrey Babcock, Jesse Blumberg, Kerri Marcinko, and Alex Richardson
The Holy Visions
Composer and Librettist: John Zorn
with Martha Cluver, Abby Fischer, Mellissa Hughes, Jane Sheldon, and Kirsten Sollek