Fort Worth — A young girl looks at her dog, named Prince, simply gazing back and forth between the mirror and at this creature. She starts asking him questions: Who are you? Where do you come from? Do you have a wife? Do you have kids? This “dog” is actually a man, of unknown origin who has assumed the life of a dog in a land plagued with a raging war. As such, he doesn’t talk, he moves as a dog, and like the teenage Lisa and her family is looking to survive, while also craving companionship.
Such is part of the setting for Dog Days, an opera that received its world premiere in 2012 in Montclair, N.J., in association with Beth Morrison Projects. Fort Worth Opera General Director Darren K. Woods saw this performance and emailed producer Beth Morrison shortly after to bring the opera to the 2015 Fort Worth Opera Festival.
It opens Friday at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center’s Scott Theatre, with six performances through May 2. The other productions in the festival, both at Bass Performance Hall, are Verdi’s La traviata and Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet.
Dog Days centers on a family, led by father Howard (played by James Bobick), who has decided to remain in their home instead of fleeing to the coast like so many others in the midst of a brutal, undefined war. His three children are Lisa, Elliot and Pat, played by Lauren Worsham, Michael Marcotte and Peter Tantsits, respectively. Their decision to remain while friends leave and food runs out takes the biggest toll on Lisa, and one day a man who has assumed the identity of a dog shows up on the family’s doorstep, begging for scraps. The mother, played by Marnie Breckenridge, encourages her daughter to accept the man as the creature whose nature he has assumed, and the platonic relationship formed between Prince, played by John Kelly, and Lisa serves as the backbone of the opera, which is gradually being threatened by the family’s desperate struggle for survival.
Composer David T. Little saw the short film by Ellie Lee in 2001 (you can see part of the film at the bottom of this story), and the opera resonated with him for another four years before he met and began working with librettist Royce Vavrek. (The film is based on Judy Budnitz's short story Flying Leap.)
“It was this really strange story, but it also had this real humanity and this real beauty, and the balance in between this beauty and the grotesque I found really moving and really powerful,” Little says. “It just stuck with me for years until 2008 or so when I had the opportunity to write a scene from an opera for a program at Carnegie Hall, and that’s when the piece itself started to come into focus and Royce and I started working together on it.
Vavrek adds that he and Little knew that they wanted to turn the opera into a full-length work from the beginning.
“We wanted it to be part of a potentially bigger project,” Vavrek says. “We knew it was a walking path for something much bigger.”
Director Robert Woodruff was immediately drawn to the opera. His focus is on the relationship between text and words, and he felt that Little’s composition and Vavrek’s libretto held many opportunities for artistic exploration.
“I heard David’s music and his band Newspeak, and they were just very electric,” Woodruff says. “It was a very exciting idea of what theater music could be. And there was a good enough story there, in Judy’s short story was a great landscape on which to base an opera so we started working together, developing that story even more and fleshing out the libretto.”
Little has experience in classical composition and contemporary rock, punk and metal, which is infused in the music of the opera. Little has even adapted a motif from a 1611 English ballad. Vavrek’s focus in libretti tends toward exploring different psychological relationships between people.
“The story is hard-hitting and I loved watching the psychologies of characters with really singular minds so this is a story that really played into that,” Vavrek says. “I really appreciate stories that deal with strange psychology. I think they make for the most interesting stories, in just trying to understand a different point of view and a different person’s reaction to things.”
Even with its contemporary strains, there are classical likenesses in the whole of the opera.
“I think it’s Greek, in that it’s fated,” Woodruff says. “You kind of see the end in the beginning. I think the relationship of music and text—which all the Greek plays are musicals, sung by a chorus and interwoven with text and music—was an important element in plays. There’s a real beauty in those forms.”
For more than a year, the three men collaborated on bringing Dog Days to completion. Their world premiere hit the stage in 2012, and their plans to come to the 2015 opera festival were solidified shortly after. The entire original cast and creative team was able to work on the Fort Worth production.
“Having two-and-a-half years to step away from it and then dive back into it, really is an opportunity to look at it objectively and to really dive in with a deeper understanding of what the piece is about,” Kelly says. “It’s an incredibly dense, rich, powerful work. I keep hearing new stuff in the music and in the lyrics, and seeing different things emerging in the performances. It’s been a great chance to dive back into this work.”
Each character has complexities, but Prince relies solely on his physicality to communicate. Because of their previous work together, Woodruff found working out the character of Prince a burden that he and Kelly could share.
“In my mind, it [the dog disguise] is kind of a bit of a camouflage,” Kelly says. “He’s always crawling, he’s low to the ground, he’s covered in fur so he might be able to blend in easily. We know it’s a real person, but he’s kind of this magical presence. He doesn’t sing, he makes a couple of sounds during the work. But he shows up, and disappears, shows up, and disappears. He’s the other.”
Little and Vavrek hoped to make a compelling piece in the opera, and they feel as though the magnitude can and does translate to the audience.
“We wanted this to stay with the audience weeks, months after they leave the theater, and I think we’ve done that, which is exciting,” Little says. “What’s interesting about the opera, at least for me coming to it now as a viewer is, we look at these people and that situation and that state is not so far from any of us. All we need is one natural disaster to knock us off our feet, and we’re there. We can really see ourselves, for better or for worse, in these characters.”
The entire team is excited to be in Fort Worth to share their opera with the community. Vavrek sees this opportunity as a starting point in their goal to bring their artistic vision around the world.
“Fort Worth is giving us a new launching pad that I think will really give Dog Days a life around the world,” Vavrek says. “It’s a great first step out of New York. It’s important to explore and be artists of the world.”
And this is not the last Fort Worth will see of the duo. Their newest work, JFK, which takes place in the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth on Nov. 21, 1963—the day before that ill-fated day in Dallas—will have its world premiere at the 2016 Fort Worth Opera Festival.
» Here's a clip from the 2001 short film Dog Days, on which the opera is based: