Fort Worth — The Fort Worth Opera presented this year’s edition of Frontiers on May 7 and 8, and as it has for the past two years, included selections from eight new or in-progress operas chosen from a wide field by a distinguished jury.
The most striking fact about the two days of hearing new works is that they were all more or less tonal. One made creative use of Asian influences, but all eight were firmly rooted in today’s adaptation of the tonal system. This pendulum swing was apparent in a smaller way in last year’s Frontiers, but this year the transformation was complete.
There wasn’t a trace of modernism.
Another striking aspect was the symbolist and impressionistic character of the libretti. Even those based on real people did not present actual dramatic interaction or conflict; and those written in prose were poetic in nature.
Some featured the composer as librettist, something that is not so common in operatic literature. Even composers who are also librettists rarely set their own text. Local audiences met Gene Scheer as the librettist of two recent, and highly successful, premieres with the Dallas Opera: Moby-Dick, with music by Jake Heggie and Everest, by Joby Talbot. He has an equally successful career as a composer.
Some historical examples of composers who are also librettists include Gian Carlo Menotti, best known as the composer of Amahl and the Night Visitors and The Medium, who also furnished the libretto for Samuel Barber’s Vanessa; and Arrigo Boito, the composer of Mefistofele who wrote the libretti, based on Shakespeare, for Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff.
It will be interesting to see if this is a trend continues.
The venue for Frontiers this year was the Kahn Auditorium in the main building of the Kimbell Art Museum. This is an excellent hall that was new to me; nowadays the performance space at the Kimbell is the much newer Piano Pavilion. However, it is quite an attractive venue. The sound is excellent, the chairs are comfortable and the ambience appealing.
The singers, mostly drawn from FWO cast members and the very talented group of studio artists, were all terrific. Even without staging, all of them communicated their characters and brought the drama to life.
One surprise was an appearance by superstar Wes Mason, who is setting the opera world on fire, most recently with his performance in the FWO production of Hamlet.
As with previous Frontiers, two excellent conductors traded off: Stephen Dubberly, Associate Professor in the Division of Conducting and Ensembles at the University of North Texas, and Tyson Deaton, one of New York City’s foremost opera coaches. Two pianists, Emily Jarrell Urbanek and Stephan Carey, took turns playing the orchestral reductions. That’s no easy task.
One of the drawbacks of the program is that we hear the scores with a piano reduction instead of whatever accompaniment is conceived by the composer. Some scores work better than others when translated to the piano.
In this program, many sounded vacant and unrelated to the vocal lines. One thing that might help is to publish the instrumentation of the selections in the program so we could guess what is going on.
Of course, using the orchestra, even a drastically reduced one, would be cost-prohibitive. Maybe if a few finalists were chosen for orchestral accompaniment while the others were with piano as they are now, some generous donors who care about the future or opera will make this possible. (More about this later.)
The operas were sung in a concert setting, with the singers behind music stands. One helpful thing was putting a card on the audience side of the stand that identified which character they were singing. One unhelpful thing was that the booklet with the libretti was in such small type that only a few could read it. The option of reading glasses was clumsy because they made the stage out of focus.
An aside: It feels petty to complain about the legibility of the libretto livré since they appeared this year in response to last year’s audience demand. General Director Darren Woods apologized and promised larger type in the future. The book did help, however, in that you could read the libretti for the second night ahead of time. The answer is always projected subtitles, even if in English, which is not always practical in concert situations.
The singers, many of whom sang in multiple operas, were a consistently attractive group of dynamite young singers with polished voices with easy access to the top and evenness in all registers. This program is not about the singers per se; it is about the composers and librettists so that will be the portfolio of this review.
La Reina is by composer Jorge Sosa and librettist Laura Sosa. The subject is the life of Regina Malverde, a Mexican drug trafficker. A Google search failed to turn up any information about her. In the opera, she is in jail. She has a moving conversation with Santa Muerte (Saint Death), a folk saint popular in Mexico (and strongly condemned by the Catholic Church, so not an official saint). There is a current Regina and a young Regina with some other characters showing up in the second scene.
Some of the music for Young Regina is at the very top of soprano range without a character-advancing reason. The accompaniment near the end is a fast note ostinato on the highest notes on the piano, which makes you wonder how it is orchestrated.
The Sorrows of Frederick is composed by Scott Wheeler on his own libretto. It is based on the complex relationship between the titular King and his idol: the writer Voltaire.
The music alternates some pointalistic phrases with lyric ones and more harmonically filled out passages. The text is always understandable. Some lines are overcomposed: ordinary conversation doesn’t require operatic extravagance (a problem with Puccini as well). The character of Katie implies the music of the era, with some Handelian overtones.
The Golden Gate, composed by Conrad Cummings, is based on a novel in verse by Vikram Seth. His musical take uses repeated and overlapping patterns, borrowed from minimalism. He surprises with hitting the keyboard with tone clusters (like a child banging on the piano). You wonder how that would orchestrate. He also employs parallel triads that move up steps. He also uses harmonic passages to build to a major climax. His musical language is basically tonal and words are set in a natural manner.
And Jill Came Tumbling After is written by composer Charles Halka and librettist John Grimmet. Halka uses an impressionistic-influenced musical language. One innovation is that he pairs solo instruments with the characters. A solitary bassoon accompanies Jack and Jill sings with just a clarinet. There are some extended recitative-like passages but an aria for the mother is quite lovely.
When Adonis Calls is by the team of composer Clint Borzoni and librettist John de los Santos and, as you might guess from the title, is this year’s sexual exploration. It is not X-rated like last year’s explicit sexual encounter between a payer and payee. Here, the text is quite lyrical and engaging and the story involves the attraction and eventual coupling of a senior established writer with an adoring aspiring one who is eager and young.
The scene in which they both give in to desire is one that is familiar to some gay men. The two share a bed due to some circumstance. While it starts out with an attempt to go to sleep, touch eventually turns into passion—made more intense because of its serendipity. The two narrate the scene themselves and we hear their thoughts as things move along.
Librettist John De los Santos compiled the text from four volumes of erotic poetry by Gavin Geoffrey Dillard. De los Santos is familiar to opera audiences in the Metroplex. He is an accomplished dancer, choreographer, director and now a librettist. Fort Worth audiences last encountered him when he directed Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers for FWO last season. My review is here.
As you might guess from de los Santos’ résumé, the work is conceived for dancers as well as singers and it will certainly be improved by the expansion. One thing that made it difficult to assess was the dynamic presence of Wes Mason as the poet. Just the week before, he gave an astonishing performance as Hamlet on the main stage (my review is here). He brings a riveting dramatic sense and expressive baritone voice to everything he does. So it was here.
However, careful listening supported the quality of the music. On the downside, the score lacks the passionate spontaneity of the words, which Mason superimposed with his performance, but this criticism may not be the case with an orchestra.
A Song for Susan Smith, composed by Zach Redler with a libretto by Mark Campbell, has echoes of Medea. Her case was front page news at the time: a grisly story that captured the attention of a public used to such mayhem on cable TV but rarely in real life. She drowned her two young boys. Her matter-of-fact confession, sounding like she was talking about some everyday occurrence, was quite horrific in its ordinariness.
Redler said the libretto brought Debussy to mind and some of that composer’s language must of stuck to his fingers, but he managed to capture the dreamy train-of-thought of the text. He is new to opera but he came from musical theater so he has a firm grip on dramatic narration. The work started out as a self-contained, one-character, short opera, with Susan’s extended aria (approximately 15 minutes). It is a tour de force for any soprano and should have a life as a concert piece. Maren Weinberger took full advantage of the opportunity.
Composer and librettist used this aria as the launching pad for a full-length opera and Frontiers presented a taste of that expansion. Without hearing the entire show, it is hard to make a judgment, one way or the other, about the enlargement but as heard here, the raw power of the aria made that passage feel complete in itself. Everything that followed felt tacked on. On the positive side, Redler obviously has a feel for opera, especially pacing. We eagerly await his future efforts.
The Tale Of Lady Thị Kinh is by composer and librettist PQ Phan. This fascinating work fuses Vietnamese traditional opera to its Western equivalent, although “equivalent” is hardly the word. The two are different in every aspect. This score is similar in intent to Dr. Sun Yat-sen by composer Huang Ruo, which premiered in Santa Fe in 2014. In that case, the Chinese opera furnished the primary influence. Also, SMU faculty composer Xi Wang explores the intersection of east and west musical traditions. Her most recent effort, which employed sounds from Tibet, was a major success for Voices of Change. My review of that is here.
Both Chinese and Vietnamese operas go back thousands of years and are tradition-laden to the point of how many steps a character takes and in which direction. Phan’s opera also mines Vietnamese musical traditions, combines them with Western music, and arrives at an intriguing combination. More than any other Frontiers selection this season, it would be of great interest to hear Phan’s orchestral score, which I imagine employs some traditional Vietnamese instruments.
The program ended with the most abstract opera of the festival: The Hill, by composer Frank Ferko and librettist Sally Gall. It concerns with two longtime friends, Jack and Jill, who adopted the nursery rhyme when they first met as children. They kept it as a motto. The symbolist libretto is gorgeous, which presents a problem for any composer. It is meditative as opposed to narrative and the words traverse subjects that touch on opposites: love and grief, life and death.
It was wonderful to hear the words as set by Ferko but its drawback as an opera might be the lack of action. Not that an opera has to be filled with movement or even have a plot line, but this text is overly static.
Frontiers has moved from being a showcase for emerging composers and librettists to ones that have already emerged. One composer has been performed by the Metropolitan Opera and another won the Prix de Rome. All of them have similarly major credits.
This is not the fault of the FWO. They can only pick from what is submitted. What it does show is the lack of opportunity for emerging composers, especially for something as expensive as an opera, if already successful ones chase after a program like Frontiers.
That said, FWO is to be commended for Frontiers.
In fact, one work that was seen in the first Frontiers in 2013, Patrick Soluri and Deborah Brevoort's Embedded, will be seen in its entirety in the Fort Worth Opera's 2016 season (paired with another short work).
But, a short selection from an opera, performed semi-staged and with piano, is hardy the way for new works to be evaluated. What is desperately needed is a new or related company that is devoted to producing the work of living composers. An eight-opera season would be a dream worth dreaming.
This would require an enterprising artistic director and a resident company of dedicated singers, directors and stage designers.
Oh, and a lot of money.
It wouldn’t take as much money as a full-blown opera company doing major productions, but a significant amount (preferably an untouchable endowment) as a basis. Both TDO and FWO already produce new operas on the regular season as well as making commissions. They also do readings/workshops. A metropolitan area as big as Dallas/Fort Worth should be able to support such an innovative program and grab the spotlight as the hotbed of new American opera, bringing it to the world.
But Frontiers is an excellent place to start.