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<em>Becoming Santa Claus</em>&nbsp;at the Dallas Opera in 2015

Auxiliary Input: November 2017

Reviews of recordings of new holiday operas from Dallas (Becoming Santa Claus) and Houston (It's a Wonderful Life), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angel's Bone.



published Wednesday, November 15, 2017

In Auxiliary Input, Andrew Anderson, a Fine Arts Librarian at the Dallas Public Library, will review classical and opera recordings, including by local organizations. We hope to tie them to local performances by guest artists with various orchestras and chamber music organizations.

For the November edition, Anderson looks at the DVD recording of the world premiere of Mark Adamo's Becoming Santa Claus at the Dallas Opera in 2015; Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's It's a Wonderful Life at Houston Grand Opera in 2016; and the 2016 performance of Du Yun's Pulitzer Prize-winning Angel's Bone.

If you have a recent or upcoming recording to suggest, email editor Mark Lowry at marklowry@theaterjones.com.

 

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Becoming Santa Claus

Mark Adamo, music and libretto

Published by Mark Adamo/The Dallas Opera

Release date: Sept. 15, 2017

 

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I was on hand for the premiere of Mark Adamo's Becoming Santa Claus. To be fair, it wasn't the premiere; it was the December 12, 2015 performance. And I wasn't in the main hall, but I was in the next room (in Hamon Hall) where the East Coast Chamber Orchestra had been moved because of a power outage at their originally scheduled location. So I didn't see Becoming Santa Claus, but I heard it. Well, I didn't exactly hear it, but I heard the 18-hour long ovation the performance prompted.

There being only so many hours in a fortnight, I long ago resigned myself to the fact that I won't witness firsthand every important premiere, every landmark performance, every great production that lands within traveling distance. That's one reason why I so strongly welcome The Dallas Opera's publication of the Dec. 6, 2015, performance of Becoming Santa Claus (DVD available here).

I was absolutely unprepared for how much I like the opera. I began the laborious process of closing my mind in early 2015 as soon as I heard the "Participling Proper Noun" title, and that doesn't even begin to plumb the depths of how shallow I can be. From reading accounts of 2015's performances (all of them favorable, mind you), Becoming Santa Claus sounded to me like the stage equivalent of that no less operatic Christmas lawn decoration in University Park, the one that features Santa looking at the baby Jesus in the nativity scene while Mickey Mouse steals and rides off with Santa's sleigh. The opera seemed like it would be a forced, try-to-please-everyone pastiche.

It's anything but forced, and it's only a pastiche in theory. Adamo is remarkably skillful in the way he takes practically every aspect of the modern American celebration of Christmas—toys, the birth of Jesus, parties, toys, "the day off," toys, and a lot more—and weaves them into a story that is coherent, engaging, thought-provoking, and fun. We should also credit the composer/librettist for his refreshingly deep scrutiny of one custom in particular, and it's an examination of which Marcel Mauss would be proud: without undue moralizing, Adamo manages to throw light on disconcerting aspects of the practice of gift-giving, and he does so without resorting to the phrase "true meaning of Christmas."

I'm not sure how faithfully the colors are rendered onscreen in this video production, but the colors I see are gorgeous. Nor am I sure how much of the show I'm missing on the sides of my screen ("Little Bo-Peep" on my TV is "Little Bo-Pee"), but it's probably more a measure of my outdated viewing setup than the quality of the video production. And I'm not sure how it will sound when subjected to a true audiophile's equipment, but on my lousy little speakers it sounds superb.

I'm reluctant to use the word "singlehandedly" in this case, because there are so many hands that went into making this DVD, from the singers (Jonathan Blaylock and Hila Plitmann stand out, particularly) to the WFAA production staff; and I mustn't leave out the handbell ringers, who provided one of the most enduring emotional punches of the performance. Nevertheless, here goes: Singlehandedly this DVD may have cured me of my tendency to shut my mind to anything new that takes aim at the true meaning of Christmas. Now, pardon me while I make a perfect Laocoön of myself with my stockings.

 

 

Angel's Bone

Du Yun, music; Royce Vavrek, libretto

The Choir Of Trinity Wall Street & NOVUS NY

VIA Records VIA-16

Release date: Sept. 22, 2017

 

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With VIA Records' release of Du Yun's cutting-edge opera Angel's Bone on CD (available here), we have the opportunity to evaluate one high-profile example of how aggressively and far outside the lines a composer can color and still receive a Pulitzer Prize for Music—which she did, in 2017.

We also have the opportunity to hear, if not experience fully, a skillfully composed and performed work that may be even more difficult to like than it is to produce or perform. Performance challenges include a frighteningly diverse mix of musical styles carried out by just as diverse a mix of artists experienced in those styles; and the score is likely even more difficult to perform than it sounds. It presents production challenges in costume, makeup, special effects, coordination of media, to say nothing of obtaining performers who can represent convincingly the range of musical styles.

And there's a host of reasons why this opera is difficult to like: it deals with one of the roughest of rough subjects—human trafficking, half allegorically, half literally, and half meta-allegorically (I know that's three halves). The story concerns a suburban couple that adopts a pair of fallen angels (one girl, one boy), violently clips their wings, and forces them into prostitution. It's no picnic to watch (I'm told), it's musically gory, and it pulls few punches, if any. An audio-only CD presentation can't present it at its best, but maybe it's better that I don't have the visuals. I'm certain I would find it even more difficult to like.

The difficulties don't end with the opera's performance, though. I undertook a first hearing without reading along in the libretto supplied in the CD's accompanying booklet (which inexplicably, and with the composer's apparent complicity, credits none of the singers except the Trinity Church Wall Street Chorus); consequently, I judged Royce Vavrek's text heavy-handed and cliché-ridden. Had the recording not been so well-mastered, I might have reserved judgment, but the clarity of virtually every word reinforced my confidence on that point. Reading the libretto prompted me, though, to revise those judgments somewhat, and I chalked these revisions up to my not being able to see what's going on. But based on statements from some who have seen it, the visual aspect may not have offered as much help I hoped it might.

I think the most profound difficulty with Angel's Bone may lie, somewhat paradoxically, in its creators' lack of confidence. Near-unison criticism has praised Du Yun's moving around confidently between her opera's wide range of expressive modes. Add my voice to that praise. But librettist and composer want to have their cutting-edge cake and eat it, too. They present an allegorical tale in a way that renders the very act of performing it an allegory, yet they want to ensure that everyone gets their message. That's a difficult creative position to adopt. One way out it is to dispense with ambiguity (by inventing your own highly problematic angelology, for one thing); another is to hammer away at the audience without mercy. To avail yourself of both strategies points to a mistrust of material, mistrust of audience, or both.

But a rough subject requires rough treatment, doesn't it? I don't know—like so many other things, art can be subject to the law of diminishing returns: a million zombies are not a million times scarier than one zombie, and an infinitely horrifying subject does not become more infinitely horrifying by my trying to make it horrifying. I think Vavrek and Du Yun have overlooked the stultifying effect that a heavy dose of extravagance can have, the way it can help inure us to something that ought to make us sick.

Don't misunderstand, I'm glad to have the opportunity to hear this work. It has an interesting point of view, it's somewhat courageous in taking up its cause, it doesn't allow us to distance ourselves from heavy matters, and it's as well-represented by this recording as it could be, under the circumstances. Still, it's alarming how blunt a cutting edge can become. To call Angel's Bone "rule-flouting opera" (as Steve Smith does in the liner notes, and he's hardly a lone voice) makes it sound as if there has never been a Mikel Rouse, a Robert Ashley, or even a Peter Maxwell Davies. I wish we could all make our peace with the way the arts—opera certainly included—have grown, to the extent that it makes more sense to talk about an artist's options in creating rather than about a genre's requirements. Then, I might be able to resist pointing out that growth with some pseudo-profound inversion such as "these days, the edgiest thing you can do is play by the rules."

 

 

It's a Wonderful Life

Jake Heggie, music; Gene Scheer, libretto

Houston Grand Opera, conducted by Patrick Summers

Pentatone records PTC 5186631

Release date: Sept. 1, 2017

 

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My unthinking reaction was one of disappointment when I learned of composer Jake Heggie's and librettist Gene Scheer's intent to work out an operatic version of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life for Houston Grand Opera. Having recently read Mark Grant's book, The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical, I was all set to gripe about modern idea-bankruptcy and the (debatably) consequent reliance on television or movies for operatic subjects. Yet even Puccini availed himself of subjects from the TV listings—which in his day was theater, since the living room hadn't been invented yet—and Verdi himself wasn't above plundering movies—which in his day was live theater, since popcorn hadn't been invented yet. All of which is to say, I sincerely want to stop knee-jerking my way out of listening to (or, better, seeing live onstage) operas that owe their genesis to a movie, TV show, short story, graphic novel, Wall Street Journal op-ed column, or Bazooka Joe strip.

Heggie's/Scheer's motivation for their project is above reproach and has historical precedent: they wanted to come up with a holiday-themed opera that people wouldn't have to figure out as they went along; they wanted a familiar subject, so that they could subject it to operatic treatment without being hampered by the unfamiliar.

It's a Wonderful Life seemed a natural, according to Heggie (it had already been turned into a musical, a radio play, a short story, several film scripts, and who knows what else). It also seems natural for someone, who regards the film as Frank Capra's masterpiece as I do, to resist any development of it into anything, opera included. But I have to admit that an initial listening to the live recording issued by Pentatone Records (available here) gave me a more favorable first impression than I ever would have thought possible.

The performances are terrific. William Burden's George Bailey and Talise Trevigne's Clara the angel stand out among a cast that really seems to believe in this work. And there are some great moments: the opening of the second act—the first track I listened to, due to an absolute fiasco of a download from iTunes—sounded like a lot of fun, and I still find it one of the most memorable sections of the opera. And that's quite an accomplishment for its creators, as far as I'm concerned, because it's a number that owes allegiance to a genre that I hate: a song (like "The Locomotion") that describes the dance you're supposed to do while the song is playing.

The rest of my initial listening proceeded in similar fashion—out of order, little following logically from what came before. Due to that botched download, I heard the two acts as a bunch of disassociated sections, like mixed-up references to the film I knew. And I enjoyed it. After sorting everything out, putting all the tracks in order, I listened again, and it was like I was listening to a different work. The opera's proportions became clearer, and the ebb and flow of dependence on the film became more apparent—and I didn't like it as much.

I began to see unfortunate correspondences; for example, all the opera's children have speaking roles—-no singing for them. But the entire section in which the angel Clara allows George to see what the world would have been like without him is bereft of music—no singing there for a good eight minutes. I'll buy a musicless world, under the circumstances, but music-free kids, too? That's tougher to swallow. And I began to see other more-or-less unfortunate aspects—like the aforementioned clearer proportions—that made the opera, presented in its proper sequence, come off more like a draft than a finished work.

The changes in the details of the story are, for me, non-issues. If you know the film, you'll hear a lot of familiar lines, and you may miss some that you wish would show up (like "Happy New Year to you! In jail!"). There's a lot of good music, and the book, though not without its problems (like a preoccupation with Harry Bailey that the work's comparatively short running time has trouble assimilating), is also good. I do hope Scheer and Heggie can come back to it after an interval and rework it. There's a good opera in there; generally, I think they were right to entrust themselves to this project.

In the meantime, if you listen to this release of it, I'll recommend something that may help you enjoy it more: are you familiar with the iTunes "shuffle" feature? Use it.

 

 

» Andrew Anderson is a Fine Arts Librarian at the Dallas Public Library. He holds a bachelor's degree in music composition from Baylor University, a Master's degree in music composition, and a Ph. D in music theory from the University of North Texas, and an MLS from Texas Woman's University.

» Auxiliary Input appears on the third Wednesday of the month in TheaterJones.

 

 PREVIOUSLY IN AUXILIARY INPUT 

  • February 2017: A recording by composer Adam Schoenberg; and a Fort Worth Symphony recording from 2016 of works by Lutoslawski and Brahms, the latter arranged by the other Schoenberg
  • March 2017: Two volumes of a set of Wagner music transcribed for solo piano by Peruvian pianist Juan Guillermo Vizcarra; and two albums of songs by Fauré and Flegíer, both featuring bass Jared Schwartz
  • April 2017: Releases from pianist/composer Marc-André Hamelin
  • May 2017: Jaap van Zweden with the Hong Kong Philharmonic; and the DVD release of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's Einstein on the Beach
  • June 2017Houston Symphony's March release of works by Dvořák; the Fort Worth Symphony's 2016 recording with pianist Vadym Kholodenko on Prokofiev's Concerto Nos. 2 and 5; and two 2015 recordings of pianist Alessandro Deljavan on works by Chopin
  • July 2017: A 2015 recording from Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal featuring a piece by composer Sam Moussa, which the Dallas Symphony will perform in September; the second volume of Alexandre Tansman piano music played by Danny Zelibor; and the much-talked about The Lost Songs of St. Kilda.
  • August 2017Cliburn Gold Medalist Yekwon Sunwoo; pianist Marc-André Hamelin performing Feldman's For Bunita Marcus; and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra on Strauss's Ein Heldenleben.
  • September 2017A release by local outfit Ensemble75; a 2015 release of early music called Love & Lust; and a new recording by the North Texas Wind Ensemble of the University of North Texas in Denton.
  • October 2017A recording of Liszt songs featuring Jared Schwartz, bass, and Mary Dibbern, piano; harp music by Emily Levin of the Dallas Symphony; and a Finnish recording of works by Sibelius, featuring conductor Hannu Lintu
 Thanks For Reading




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Auxiliary Input: November 2017
Reviews of recordings of new holiday operas from Dallas (Becoming Santa Claus) and Houston (It's a Wonderful Life), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angel's Bone.
by Andrew Anderson

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An Act Of God Circle Theatre CCBT Lone Star Circus Black Nativity Watertower Theatre Fade Uptown Players UNT Dance and Theatre Margo Jones Holiday Open Classicial Plaid Tidings Dallas Opera Dallas Opera
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An Act Of God Circle Theatre CCBT Lone Star Circus Black Nativity Watertower Theatre Fade Uptown Players UNT Dance and Theatre Margo Jones Holiday Open Classicial Plaid Tidings Dallas Opera Dallas Opera
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An Act Of God Circle Theatre CCBT Lone Star Circus Black Nativity Watertower Theatre Fade Uptown Players UNT Dance and Theatre Margo Jones Holiday Open Classicial Plaid Tidings Dallas Opera Dallas Opera
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An Act Of God Circle Theatre CCBT Lone Star Circus Black Nativity Watertower Theatre Fade Uptown Players UNT Dance and Theatre Margo Jones Holiday Open Classicial Plaid Tidings Dallas Opera Dallas Opera
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An Act Of God Circle Theatre CCBT Lone Star Circus Black Nativity Watertower Theatre Fade Uptown Players UNT Dance and Theatre Margo Jones Holiday Open Classicial Plaid Tidings Dallas Opera Dallas Opera
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