i’ve recently been thinking about opera as “third space”*, the odd place where realism and fantasy coexist while rendering each other obsolete. i think opera is at its best when it exemplifies all of those qualities that make it opera and not something else. i’ve been reminded of that a few times this week which, in my opinion, is quite extraordinary.
i wrote about the Monodramas at NYCO earlier this week which got me in this world of third space. plotless while with direction, it did something that only opera can do which is tell a story without a story. the operas of the Figaro Project did the opposite while accomplishing the same goal: telling incredibly vivid stories (both real and imaginary) in the best way opera can. i kept coming back to the idea of stories while watching and i think that’s important. but i’ll come back to that later.
i knew i had been watching too much Law and Order: SVU when i watched Paul Mathews’s Piecing It Apart, the story of an interrogation and a love affair gone wrong as many do. i realized i was being hooked with a backstory between police detectives Margaret and Max while learning about Dylan’s story, his affair with hometown girl Janey. it seems simple at first but unfurls into something so understandable and real that it surprised me that i was even taken by surprise. But the simplicity of it all, enhanced by the music and strong singing of the cast (especially Andrew Spady as Dylan) came as a breath of fresh air as it could have been as melodramatic as anything on TV.
(on that note, there is something quite refreshing about hearing a work done in a small space with very little between the performers and the audience. it was intimate in a way that most performances are not and i think it was a bold move, even if partly out of necessity.)
the stories continued, this time with something along the lines of the Neverending Story with Douglas Buchanan’s Lux et Tenebrae. the story was familiar: a child who can’t sleep pestering her grandfather with questions and asking for a story, only to find herself on a great quest. the music was as imaginative as the story and the cast’s willingness to enhance the already present humor (see the Snake with Two Names played by Jason Buckwalter and Nathan Wyatt) made it thoroughly entertaining. the Child played by Nola Richardson was inquisitive and endearing, an identifiable heroine. i think this would be a great opera for kids, especially if it’s pulled off the way it was saturday night, because we all know that children need more opera.
the last opera, Joshua Bornfield’s Strong Like Bull, was one of those great adult satires that, when you see it, makes you glad you’re smart enough to get the joke. i’ve always been of the belief that nothing is funnier and more absurd than history and i think this proves me right. loosely based on historical events in Russia after the September Revolution, the opera tells of a political puppet master (both literally and figuratively) pulling the strings of the interim government. with catchy hooks (“Mother Russia, here’s to you”) and moments bordering on parody (especially if you caught the reference), the music was inviting and set the stage for a great story. the cast went the distance in terms of acting and the result was uproarious laughter from the audience. and apparently, i got to see some last minute additions from other Figaro Project cast members (including conductor Jim Stopher) — one of those things you let yourself do on the last night of a show’s run. the four person cast sang the work with conviction, each bringing their own humor to their roles. (and brava to Jessica Abel for playing a pants role that’s so anti-en travesti with such gusto — and an almost too-realistic insanity).
all three operas were conducted and played brilliantly by Jim Stopher and pianist Younggun Kim, respectively (including violinist Mark Ericksen and cellist Peter Kibbe in Lux et Tenebrae) and made a formidable challenge look like child’s play.
i told many of the cast members afterwards that in addition to great singing, about which of course, we as opera-goers all care, what struck me most was their acting ability (something which those of you have talked to me recently know we’re supposed to take for granted) and their willingness to tell stories. while, true, not everyone can get on stage and sing, those who do can do it with a fair amount of similarity. when that happens, yes, there’s a story but it doesn’t resonate. and even the most ridiculous and absurd of stories can resonate with us if they’re told with authority and conviction.
*for those of you in my physiognomies class, yes i know this is not the definition of “third space” that we discussed but i mean, is it really necessary?
i was asked several months ago to write reviews about the operas i would be seeing once i moved to the fancy schmancy big apple. now, knowing me, i thought i wouldn’t be spending too much time at Lincoln Center. boy was i wrong.
so in the six or so months that i’ve lived in New York, I’ve attended a handful of performances including Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, John Adams’s Nixon in China and Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride. and it doesn’t look like it’s stopping any time soon. but attending these performances has done more than make me get out of the house. it has forced me to change my personal view about and relationship to opera. and being the creature of habit that i am, i have to write about it.
hopefully, this will give me some insight into why i am, personally, so transfixed by opera. and of course i have other reasons. i write about opera. a lot. (basically every major paper written during my Master’s degree was about opera) and my PhD dissertation focuses on opera on more than just a musical level. this is a place to work out some of those thoughts that are so incredibly specific.
and yes, i want to brag. there, i said it.
so what’s coming up next? Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Morton Feldman’s Neither at City Opera and Berg’s Wozzeck at the Met. also some thoughts on gendered operatic madness in Lucia di Lammermoor and Peter Grimes. oh yeah, it’s gonna be fun.
POSTSCRIPT: how could i have forgotten? i will 100% be at the Figaro Project Contemporary Opera Trio premiere in Baltimore in a few weeks. for those who are not familiar, The Figaro Project is a wonderful opera startup with which i had the great pleasure of being associated during my time at Peabody. they commissioned three 40-minute operas from local composers and i can’t wait to see the productions. for more info, check out The Figaro Project at thefigaroproject.com.