Fort Worth — If you’ve seen Fort Worth Opera’s production of Dog Days, chances are you were surprised in some way. After all, programing it as the opening of the 2015 Fort Worth Opera Festival, sets up certain expectations. Add that composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek have the coveted commission to write the opera JFK that FWO will premiere in 2016, and anticipation to hear what the pair can do is extremely high.
Unprepared for what would happen on the stage in Dog Days, the shock quotient is so high that some have found it difficult to look deeper and give the chamber opera a fair evaluation.
There have been clues. First of all, it opened in the Scott Theatre rather than Bass Hall, but the FWO usually presents more modern and edgier works in small theaters—this is the space where the organization staged Angels in America years ago. To boot, promotional materials quoted a Wall Street Journal review that called Dog Days “a punch in the stomach.”
A quick look at the synopsis (easily found online) lets viewers know that the story follows a family struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic future, in which an ongoing war wipes out most of civilization. Those spared will probably starve or be killed by lawless gangs. One character’s mind is so muddled that he thinks he is a dog.
So, no one should have expected The Merry Widow.
What we did get was a purposely grim musical realization of the Judy Budnitz short story Flying Leap, with its rough edges sharpened. (Ellie Lee adapted the story for a 2001 short film called Dog Days, which is how Vavrek and Little were introduced to the story). The sound is amplified—sometimes to distortion, profanity abounds, and there is some nudity, simulated sex and profanity. No one would have thought a thing about it if it were presented by one of the experimental theaters in town.
Richard Strauss’ fabulous opera Salome has nudity, incest and necrophilia—and that’s just one example of unpleasant subject matter in an art form in which the biggest hits are filled with rape, violence and every kind of death. A perusal of Netflix turns up a plethora of films based on this same concept, even Hollywood blockbusters such as Mad Max. Most are as grim as Dog Days and either PG-17, R or NC-17 (maybe even X) rated. To boot, one of the most popular shows on television is The Walking Dead, a gory zombie apocalypse drama with frequent decapitation and cannibalism.
For those able to look past all of the sensationalism in Dog Days, there’s a superb production, staged by Robert Woodruff, with world-class actors who also have main stage operatic chops.
As the teen on the edge of puberty, Lauren Worsham gives Lisa a wide-eyed innocence peppered with the ability to look disaster in the face and only see the good in it. She sings a touching aria while looking at herself in a mirror. She admires her sunken cheeks and skeletal cheekbones that she sees on high fashion models, not realizing that hers come from starvation.
James Bobick overacts and oversings, shouting his way through the role of the father, Howard. This blunts his big rant moment because there is no upper level remaining for him to take it.
Marnie Breckenridge makes a serene mother as she does what se can to hold everything together and scrounge up something to eat, even if it is grass.
John Kelly brings the soulful love-filled eyes of a Labrador to his role as the man who became a dog. His movements also mimicked a friendly dog and you instantly bonded with him, as happens with real dogs. He scurries away when the father kicks and threatens him but Lisa’s kindness brings him back, still full of hope.
The two rowdy brothers, Elliott (Michael Marcotte) and Pat (Peter Tantsits) are suffering from testosterone poisoning and rabid cabin fever. They have made a ratpack den for themselves in the basement where the smoke some pot and speculate on being the last men alive with the job of repopulating the world. A hasty simulated masturbation adds a pathetic exclamation point to these unrealistic dreams.
Cherry Duke makes a brief appearance as an army officer who tries to get them to leave their home that is in an already devastated wasteland, but to no avail.
Vaverek’s sparse and coarse libretto hits the mark every time with both the choice of words and the context in which he carefully places them.
Little’s skillfully composed music reflects the same fusion we hear in concert halls these days, including neo-romanticism, abrasive modernist revival, rock, medieval ballads and electronica. Without seeing a score, it would be futile to speculate further about all of the compositional devices he uses, but what you hear shows a composer with a formidable technical mastery and a willingness to use it or toss it out completely as the dramatic situation requires.
Dog Days could very well be a masterpiece underneath all the hype, but it is in need of a rewrite, something that is common in opera history. The list of such scores is huge and populated by landmark operas such as Beethoven’s Fidelio, Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra.
It is unrelentingly bleak. A softer moment somewhere would give us all a break. It doesn’t need to be funny or comic; it could just be a tender moment or a memory of happier days.
The music is too loud and over-amplified much of the time. This also makes it difficult to differentiate between the acoustic instruments in the small orchestra and the electronic, synthesized ones (Alan Pierson is the conductor).
The singers are also amplified, which is common for Broadway shows, where the singers do eight shows a week. However, opera singers are almost never amplified, much less in such a small theater.
Does this take genre-blending too far? Is all this amplification necessary? It is understandable and very effective in the electronic spots, such as the arrival of a helicopter and the even-louder buzz of an electronic short that ends the piece.
But the singers? The acoustic instruments? Probably not.
It is difficult to search for a word to describe Dog Days, one that feels correct. The problem with the one I found is that its true meaning is corrupted in common usage and its connotations are all wrong. That word is “horrible” as defined by Webster as “…marked by or arousing horror,” such as a horror movie.
Dog Days is not a horrible opera; in fact, it may be a masterpiece. But it does arouse horror. The thought of wiping out the world with another senseless war is a horror. Watching a family starve to death is a horror. The ending is over-the-top, and probably unnecessary—the point has already been made—but it is the horror of horrors.
Dog Days holds up a stark mirror, not just to Lisa, but also to us all. “See what you could become,” it says. “You won’t even know it is happening until it is too late.”
Let us all say a prayer that we don’t shoot the messengers—such as artistic works like Dog Days.
» Read our interview with Little and Vavrek about Dog Days