Dateline: A wide-ranging array of musicians came together to give a new opera a semi-staged production last week at Dallas City Performance Hall. Wading Home: An Opera of New Orleans is about the impact of Hurricane Katrina on one family. The music is by Mary Alice Rich. Rosalyn Story, who also wrote the libretto with input from the composer, based the action on her novel of the same name. In addition to her work as a writer, local audiences also know Story as a violinist in the Fort Worth Symphony.
Semi-staging an opera in front of the orchestra is a difficult task. Adding to that is the limitation of only minimal props and no costumes. With the assistance of projected slides of the locales of the drama, Hank Hammett, who is the director of opera at SMU, did an admirable job of creating the mood as well as interaction of the main characters.
Donnie Ray Albert portrayed Simon Fortier, a retired chef, who is the character at the center of the drama. Albert has sung leading roles with opera companies around the world and his rich and burnished voice is as magnificent as it was 40 years ago when he began his career. He brought irascible warmth to the character that made his final reunion with his son a moving highlight. Another was his clever song about the horrors of being in a hospital, especially training his chef’s trained eye on what passes for food.
The other singers are equally distinguished. Nathan Meyers, who is on the faculty of Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts, brought intensity to the role of the trumpet-playing son. He has a well-placed baritone voice and it is no wonder that he lists appearances with some major opera companies in his biography. Some more color and dynamic ranges would have helped his portrayal—he was at top volume for much of his role.
Other singers were Walteria Bethea, Bronwen Forbay, Paul André Doucet, Lauren Pinzás and Parker Davis. All have excellent voices of operatic timbre and did a first-rate job.
Music Director Barbara Hill Moore, who is a distinguished professor of voice at SMU, did a fine job of putting the cast and chorus together. Constantine Tsolainou was remarkable conducting the opera. It is safe to assume that rehearsal time was limited, especially with the 16-piece orchestra. As a result, she was absolutely clear in her baton technique and was in constant contact with all of the players and the chorus. The leading singers were in front of her with no eye contact possible, but you would not know it from the way she was right with them all evening.
The opera itself has the feel of a work-in-progress. Its two acts are chopped up into a series of eight scenes and each scene is further divided into musical numbers that have a definite beginning and ending. The effect is that the score is always stopping once it picks up steam. The orchestration uses the instruments in an unusual manner, resulting in some passages sounding vacant and others oddly balanced. The characters lack signature musical style or musical motif to help define them.
On the plus side, many of the individual numbers capture the mood of the situation with charm and authenticity. However, the overall impression is that Rich didn’t know what to do between all of the good ideas.