Fort Worth — A cautionary tale about carbs? A study of mental illness? An encouragement to vegetarianism?
Composer and librettist Rachel J. Peters’ opera Companionship received its world premiere at the Fort Worth Opera Festival Wednesday night. Based on a short story by Arthur Phillips, its premise is an engaging one: what happens when our food comes to life?
Leslie Sinclair, sung by appealing, vibrant young soprano Maren Weinberger Maddry, is an obsessive bread maker, baking loaf after loaf—207,345, as she sings in the opera’s opening lines. Apparently, she never eats the baguettes she bakes, though, or anything else for that matter. Leslie, as we learn, has recently been in a psychiatric hospital. She wears a strangely bunchy dress, perhaps a visible reflection of her tenuous mental state.
But it is no delusion when the dough that she is preparing for that 207,346th baguette comes to life. Others can see The Dough, too. The Dough, well-acted and -sung by mezzo Kate Tombaugh, is a capricious creature, simultaneously wise and childlike. She offers to provide Leslie with “the great wisedom” if only Leslie cares for The Dough properly, which turns out to mean feeding her, and eventually her Mate and her dough-children, heaps of thyme (which is a pun, as you might imagine—The Dough eats Leslie’s time and her thyme).
I was expecting to be charmed by this opera—after all, its premise is imaginative if rather creepy. And I was charmed…but I wasn’t fully expecting it to be so grim. I don’t provide spoilers but suffice it to say that this is not a comedy, no matter how it’s billed. This opera is The Glass Menagerie with bread. Leslie is the fragile, Laura-Wingfield-like character, teetering between sanity and mental illness, never leaving the house, frozen and incapable of moving forward with her life, while her simultaneously well-meaning and cruel family observes and advises. Her father has already driven away her Gentleman Caller, Daniel, who is mentioned but never seen.
Peters’ libretto could use some revision, since Leslie refers obliquely to two people, Hiram and Daniel, who are never fully explained. Daniel was apparently a beau, but Hiram is a mystery. All we know is that he’s dead, and Leslie sings “I shouldn’t be alive/If he isn’t alive!” But we don’t know why he’s dead, or why she feels this guilt, any more than we know who he was. References to Hiram, then, should be cut, or better explained.
Although Leslie bakes furiously, she never eats, and indeed refuses to have food in the house other than the bread that she bakes then throws away. The Dough animates and tells her that the oven, the “firebox torture chamber” needs to be removed. Likewise with timers and clocks, and the TV, the “dead picture hate machine.” Leslie complies, apparently because The Dough offers her positive attention and love, which she does not get from her human family, but maybe also because renunciation is her gift. She renounces human love, then food, then material things. But this kind of renunciation cannot last indefinitely. Giving up, after all, has two meanings.
Performances were all good to excellent—standouts included Leslie’s evil twin (literally), Viv, played by Jeni Houser. Her secure, confident soprano and over-the-top acting were just right. Leslie’s parents were played by the competent but undistinguished Samuel Schultz as Gene Sinclair and Hilary Ginther as Judy Sinclair. David Walton, as Tom the Exterminator, and Benjamin Sieverding, as the Dough’s Mate, excelled in minor roles. The children’s chorus playing the children of The Dough was charming and well-prepared by chorus director Alfrelynn Roberts, although their screaming was truly painful. (Anyone with hypersensitivity to sound had best wear earplugs.)
While Companionship has its flaws, it certainly gives its audiences food for thought. (Yes. I went there.) This is an opera that revels in ambiguity. What does it mean that Leslie’s family can see The Dough (and why isn’t she surprised by that)? Is The Dough, rendered inedible through its sentience, a metaphor for Leslie’s apparent anorexia? Is The Dough itself a visible representation of Leslie’s mental illness? Or is this just a cautionary tale about excessive consumerism?
The music is lively and cleverly keyed to each character, so Tom the Exterminator gets a jazzy style, while Leslie’s role is sung in a sort of neoromantic way. With relatively few characters, simple sets and costumes (both by production designer Laura Anderson Barbata, including the oversized cartoon props), and only an onstage pianist (the capable Adam Marks) as instrumental accompaniment, it’s relatively easy to stage, and could become popular. Though it’s in English, I missed having supertitles. As with many premieres, too, it needs some tweaking to be ready for additional productions.
It's worth noting that this is Fort Worth Opera's first fully staged production of an opera composed by a woman. It’s about thyme.
Note that this production takes place in the Lecture Hall at the Fort Worth Botanic Gardens. Parking is free.