Sunday, October 13, 2013


Contemporary Opera rules in Boston

Boston this year is in something of a Contemporary Opera Festival mode.  I have no intelligence that any of the companies collaborated or consulted with any of the others, but the result is a real feast of modern music for the operatic stage.

My season began with the Fringe Festival that Boston University's Music and Theater Arts Departments (the latter where I studied Stage Design in the 1960s) put on each year.  Two chamber operas (we are currently in a BIG flowering of chamber in the U.S. because they are modest in scale, easy to produce, and cost vastly less than big opera house operas) began the series:

Jonathan Dove's 1994 Siren Song is a 5 character piece telling the story of a Royal Navy sailor who falls in love with a young and beautiful model via their pen-pal relationship.  Every possible meeting with her is frustrated by word from her brother that she is ill or has been called to London for an unexpected photo shoot, etc. etc.  The model is a character in the opera, appearing and singing her letters to the sailor, seen only by the audience, in the form that he imagines her.   All the while, the brother is collecting money to set up the apartment the sailor and his sister will eventually share.

It's all a scam, of course; there is no sister, the brother is feathering his nest, and the sailor is called up for investigation because of his frequent ship-to-shore calls to a man.  It was a bit of a shock to hear that the Royal Navy would take action against a gay man because the rules have recently been so relaxed that they had a campaign to attract gay couples into the Service.  But this was 1994, and things were different.  The opera ends in sorrow and disillusion as the brother is arrested for fraud and theft while the sailor watches the image of his beloved fade from his eyes.

The music is both lyrical and quite expressive, particularly for the young woman.  With minimal props and excellent lighting, the production was totally satisfying.

The second BU Fringe offering was Nico Muhly's very recent (2011) Dark Sisters that was premiered in Philadelphia and then played New York City to strong reviews.  I was doubly anxious to see it as I have a ticket to Muhly's Two Boys at the Metropolitan Opera in November--it premiered to good notices in London two years ago.  I gave a two day symposium on American Opera a year and a half ago and ended it with a profile of Muhly with an eye to the question, "Is he the future of American Opera?"  He's a most interesting young (29) composer whose range spans film music, collaboration with rock bands, a large output of choral and instrumental music, and connections to many other important composers (Philip Glass, currently), music ensembles, and musicians.

Dark Sisters is based on two prominent raids by Federal authorities on polygamous Mormon compounds in which large numbers of children (over 400 in one raid) were seized and placed into protective custody, with charges of sex with under-aged young women brought against the men involved.  The 7 character opera opens in the aftermath of a raid, with five women mourning the loss of their children.  The head of the compound, the "Prophet," urges them to "keep sweet," an actual directive used on wives and daughters in the Mormon Church; he then leaves, supposedly to confront authorities but actually on a jaunt to Las Vegas.  The act closes with an almost 20 minute ensemble by the five women as they process their loss and the openly rebellious stance of one of them.

Act two takes place in a very different culture and musical atmosphere.  The women (now including one's 15 year-old daughter) are on a talk show trying to get the message out to the world that their children should be returned to them, while the host in interested mostly in the more sensational side of polygamy.  The opera ends with The Prophet returning and getting the women back under his thrall, except for the rebellious one who has escaped the compound.  In the final moments, it becomes obvious that the 15 year old is on her way to becoming one of his wives, like her mother before her.

Muhly's music is attractive, dramatic and expressive.  I did think the first act could have been 5 to 10 minutes shorter but basic interest never flagged and the ensemble of women featured some excellent music.  Both Siren Song and Dark Sisters were received enthusiastically by their audiences.

In the coming months, the following operas are scheduled for production in Boston:

Boston Lyric Opera will present the premiere of a new chamber opera version by Jack Beeson of his opera Lizzie Borden, based in Lizzie's famous ax murder of her father and step mother.

Opera Brittenica, a brand new company, will present Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia and The Burning Fiery Furnace.

Intermezzo, The New England Chamber Opera Series will present the premiere of Anne Hutchinson with music by Dan Shore and libretto by Fritz Bell and William Fregosi -- Fritz and me -- our second libretto to be set to music.  I'm also designing the set.

Boston University will present Daniel Catan's magic realism opera Florencia en el Amazonas, based on Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel Love in the Time of Cholera.

Boston Opera Collaborative will present Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream and the premiere of Mohammed Fairouz's Sumeida's Song.

Odyssey Opera, the reincarnation of Opera Boston will present chamber operas in the spring.  No titles have yet been announced but it is understood that some modern American chamber operas will be involved.

All in all, a varied and extremely encouraging advocacy of new work by a city that is very musically sophisticated.  

Ken starts rehearsals of the Britten tomorrow evening - first performance on Saturday!
Don't expect too much from Two Boys - it's threadbare of any real inspiration or bite (subject apart) and if you get the same production we had at ENO, I pity you.

And while I'm on a negative jag, I have to say that 'Opera Brittenica' strikes me as a pretty dreadful name for a group, though there are plenty of others much more pretentious. At least these groups are around, which is fabulous news. There, I ended on a positive note.
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