May 3, 2009 - In its VOX: Showcasing American Opera series, celebrating its 10th anniversary and looking at its 100th new opera, the New York City Opera (NYCO) examines the state of indigenous opera today and, judging by what I heard on the second of VOX's two days, May 2, at New York University's Skirball Center, the prognosis for new opera is encouraging. NYCO considered five new operas the night before and another five on the afternoon I attended, and each session was preceded by a pertinent roundtable discussion.
The works varied greatly in style and sound. Each was presented in a concert format and introduced by a film clip, in which the creative artists spoke of their opus.
Christopher Cerrone said that his "Invisible Cities" concerned the decay of empire and that he "prepared" a piano, for instance, by putting nails or coins under or between its strings, to achieve a decaying sound, one slightly 'off' as it fades, and bleakly evoke that decay. Tenor Robert Mack played Marco Polo, baritone Marcus DeLoach portrayed Kublai Kahn, soprano Anya Matanovic and mezzo-soprano Janara Kellerman were unnamed women, and Daivd Wroe conducted the NYCO Orchestra. Cerrone demanded extremes of range of his singers, sometimes having his baritone sing in head tone and his tenor, in a guttural low voice. The style was more or less minimalist and the effect was mesmerizing.
In their "Armide," composer Jonathan Dawe and librettist Heather Raffo have updated the subject and music of Jean-Baptiste Lully's 1686 "Armide et Renaud," setting the tale of the medieval Saracen sorceress, who diverts Crusaders from their mission, in Iraq 10 years from now and twisting the Baroque line dissonantly off-kilter-"It's just Baroque music on steroids," said Dawe-and adding in Hip Hop and Iraqi folk music to create an intriguing blend. Strong-voiced soprano Inna Dukach, singing in Arabic, was Armide; sweet-voiced haute-contre Karim Sulayman, as Renaud, lent bel canto technique to coloratura made jagged and angular; and bass-baritone Roland Burks and baritone Michael Zegarski, as soldiers, rapped angrily in juxtaposition with choral singing, under Jeffrey Milarsky's baton.
We were treated to the entirety of composers Michaela Eremiášová and Jairo Duarte-López and librettist and animator Skip Battaglia's entertaining eight-minute "Car Crash Opera," minus the animated film. We met the occupants of four vehicles-soprano Lielle Berman and mezzo-soprano Ariana Chris as Mama and Bambina, a sweet mother and child bearing a cake to Grandma's house; bass David Salsbery Fry as Guido, a brooding farmer alone in his pickup; soprano Jennifer Zetlan, recently Juilliard Opera Center's Nanetta in "Falstaff," and tenor Mack as hot, horny lovers Princessa and Odi; and tenor Theodore Chletsos and baritone Ryan Kinsella as swaggering teenagers and reckless speedsters Trino and Rico-who all die abruptly in a four-car collision and wordlessly join NYCO's choristers in singing as an angelic choir. Steven Jarvi conducted.
A most compelling work was composer Anne LeBaron and librettist Douglas Kearney's "Crescent City," a reaction to Hurricane Katrina, that incorporates electronic sounds, swing, jazz, blues, and rollicking honkytonk, as it posits 19th century Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau and the voodoo deities she worships as potential saviors of New Orleans after the 2005 disaster. Most members of the high-level cast played contemporary New Orleanians, as well as the loa, the voodoo gods who have possessed them and aren't sure the city deserves to be saved. Lucia Bradford intoned the self-sacrificing Marie Laveau's invocation to the gods in a deep, earth mother mezzo, to swinging orchestral and electronic accompaniment. Expressive and forceful tenor John Duykers, well remembered for creating the role of Chairman Mao in John Adams' "Nixon in China," played a cop and the grumpy god Baron Samedi, who has taken over his body, and offered a tour de force in which the two wrestle for control. Duykers' cop also sang a jagged lyric lullaby to his dead partner, with countertenor Jason Abrams, as the ghost cop, wailing, grunting, moaning, and singing coloratura and nonsense syllables in an effort to join his living partner's song. Abrams' character shared a body with goddess Erzulie Fréda. Sopranos Berman and Zetlan portrayed the twin goddesses Marassa, as well dippy nurses' aides Anna May and Susie, who, in a cocaine-induced hallucination, expressed in a gentle nocturne, mistake the helicopter, which has come to rescue them from the flood, for the moon. Marc Lowenstein conducted. "Crescent City" retains some parts of an earlier version of its libretto, written by Philip Littell.
Composer David Bruce and librettist Alasdair Middleton's "A Bird in Your Ear," VOX's 100th opera, is a fairy tale, set to fairly traditional-sounding music, marked by childlike innocence and, in view of its Tsarist Russian setting, somewhat Eastern-style strains. High tenor Andrew Drost was the boy, Ivan, who learned the language of the birds. Baritone Eugene Brancoveanu was the merchant, his maddeningly practical father, who tried to dissuade Ivan from pursuing his dreams. Soprano Melissa Fogarty joined mezzos Chris and Kellerman to make a mellifluous trio of narrators. High soprano Berman was the Nightingale, who first inspired Ivan and later brought father and son back together. Matanovic indulged in florid flights as the grateful Bird with Golden Plumage, whose babies Ivan rescued. Berman and Matanovic joined mezzo Cherry Duke to play cranes, warning of an imminent storm, and swans, singing in brisk syncopation, to alert Ivan about the approach of pirates. Conductor Mark Mandarano presided.
Before we heard these selections, NYCO's new General Manager and Artistic Director George Steel moderated a panel, billed as "American Opera: Past, Present, Future," and featuring veteran composer Carlisle Floyd ("Susannah," "Of Mice and Men"); more recent arrival, the very successful Mark Adamo ("Little Women," "Lysistrata"), at work on an opera about Mary Magdalene, commissioned for the San Francisco Opera by David Gockley; composer and singer Eve Beglarian, preparing "The Man in the Black Suit," an opera based on a Stephen King story, and championing the "American experimental tradition" and use of electronic music in opera; young Nico Muhly, working on a commission from the Metropolitan Opera; and director Anne Bogart, who announced, "I'd like to declare the end of post-modernism." Noting that "visceral reaction is important" in opera, Floyd shared a comment, made to him by a very traditional opera lover after a performance of "Of Mice and Men," and not meant as a compliment, "Mr. Floyd, I've been going to the opera for 50 years and I've never cried before!" A 16-year-old in the audience offered, as a potential guideline for composers and presenters, that a more experimental piece such as Eric Whitaker's "Shadows and Wings" held more appeal for her than "stagnant" traditional opera.