Fort Worth — I often hear the complaint that operas are too long. Few are as short as Puccini’s Madame Butterfly while few are as long as Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. Most grand operas fall into the three-hour happy medium.
There is a vast repertoire of one-act operas. They group into two categories: chamber operas that are relatively short and can be done with piano with minimal staging. Grand operas are usually longer and need full orchestra and elaborate productions. Chamber operas vary in length from a few minutes, such as Samuel Barber’s A Hand of Bridge that lasts a mere nine minutes, to others than can last up to an hour. On the grand one-act opera side, both Wagner’s Das Rheingold, which runs for two hours and 40 minutes, and Richard Strauss’ Salome, lasting for a very intense two hours, require a huge orchestras and major staging.
However, the Fort Worth Opera presented three operas designed to please the “it’s too long” crowd. Each opera, packaged as Brief Encounters, was no longer than 15 minutes. These miniature masterpieces were staged in the 245-seat lecture hall at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, giving us an intimate experience, as befits the operas, offering an intriguing alternative to grand opera in Bass Hall. Best yet, all three operas were written by living composers, in English and in a neo-tonal musical language.
The three short operas, packed as an evening called Brief Encounters, shared the basic subject matter of love and marriage, examining this age-old conundrum from three different angles. An ensemble of excellent singers took the various roles: soprano Maren Weinberger, mezzo Katherine Tombaugh, tenor Javier Abreu, baritone Samuel Schultz and bass Zachary James. Joe Illick, artistic director of the FWO, did a sensitive singer-friendly job at the piano in such a convincing manner that no one missed the usual pit orchestra. All three were staged by William Florescu, using only a few pieces of furniture. Anne De May did a fine job of subtly helping the singers to create the characters.
The first mini-opera, Avow, was composed by Mark Adamo (Little Women, Lysistrata, and Becoming Santa Claus), written on his own libretto. This opera lets us peek in on a couple a few moments before they marry. Vocal thought bubbles let us know what they are really thinking, namely “I can’t go through with this.” Both Tombaugh’s bride and Schultz’s groom have equally wet feet. Weinberger as the bride’s mother fusses about the social aspects. Abreu’s portrayal of the priest is suitably smug about the proceedings. Just to confuse the situation, the ghost of the groom’s father (sung by James) makes an apparition to gripe about his own marriage. Getting married is one of the biggest life decisions in the human experience, and many couples experience these same doubts right up until they say, “I do.” Adamo’s music is pan-tonal with some modernist flourishes. His vocal writing clearly enhances the words.
The next opera, Again, was by Jake Heggie (Dead Man Walking, Moby-Dick). The libretto, by David Patrick Stearns, deals with two couples that have been married for a longer time and are growing tired of each other. Stearns uses the characters from I Love Lucy as his protagonists. While Abreu doesn’t look at all like Ricky, he creates the character so vividly that you forget how the real Ricky looked. It is the same with Schultz’s portrayal of Fred. They actually would have been better suited to the roles physically if they switched parts, but vocally that wouldn’t have worked with Heggie’s score.
Weinberger vaguely looks like Lucy, as does Tombaugh as Ethel. It is unfortunate that the title Again refers to Ricky landing a couple of haymakers on Lucy, giving her black eyes. Maybe this was the case with the hot-blooded Latin Desi Arnez, but I never heard such reports. And, of course, she always forgives him. Heggie writes in his own chromatic manner with a variety of influences from jazz to Richard Strauss.
The final opera was Illick's Feel the Tango on a libretto by Susan Westfall. Instead of the spousal abuse in Again, this marriage has descended into benign neglect. Sandy, sung by Weinberger, suffers from the passivity and down right ignoring attitude of her husband, Joe, blandly portrayed by Schultz.
They are in their “usual” restaurant ordering their “usual” dinner, which suits Joe just fine but Sandy less so. Everything takes a surprising turn when Joe, nose in his smartphone, goes to the bar to watch sports on TV. The sexy waiter, sung by Abreu, finds Sandy alone and does a terrific turn as the Latin lover as he twirls her around in a romantically laden and super sensual tango. They dance off stage cheek to cheek. When Joe returns, the waitress, sung by Tombaugh, does the sultry honors for him. Somehow these dalliances rekindle their love enough to order something other than the “usual.” That is progress.
Westfall’s immensely clever libretto combined with Illick’s wild take on the tango made this opera the highlight of the three. However, the entire evening was delightful and all three selections were first-class. One can hope that an evening of short comic operas becomes a regular in future FWO seasons.