Fort Worth — The Fort Worth Opera amazed this season with four first-class productions and the innovative Frontiers program, which presented eight scenes, in workshop, from operas in development by emerging composers on May 8 and 9. With the pathetic demise of New York City Opera and their similar VOX program, Frontiers is now one of the few such programs in the country.
The overriding impression of this year’s selection, as opposed to last year’s crop, is the continued pendulum swing away from modernism and a move towards a fresh take on tonality. We saw this on the full-scale productions as well, with the musical language of both new operas presented (With Blood, With Ink and Silent Night). However, this is not a “return” to the overwrought, highly chromatic tonality we left behind in 1930 nor is it the repeated purity of triads that the minimalists developed. What is emerging is a 21st-century take on tonality. The ensuing period of experimentation we survived, along with jazz, world music and even rock, has given today’s composers a greatly expanded palette and they are using all of it.
The eight operas were chosen from a field ten times that large and represent composers, some of who are relatively new names and others with well-established careers. Thus, it is not a program necessarily for emerging composers, although that is an important part. It is for emerging operas—some finished and waiting for premieres and others that are still in various stages of completion. This is an important difference from the standard composition contest that seeks new talent or to bring attention to worthy but undiscovered masterpieces.
The FWO called on its superb group of apprentices to cast these scenes. They were (in order of appearance): Kerriann Otaño, Clara Nieman, Ian McEuen, Mat Moeller, Dane Suarez, Meredith Browning, Meaghan Deiter, Cristina Castro, Kevin Newell, Claire Shackleton, Dan Kempson, Steven Eddy, Aaron Sorenson, Corrie Donovan, Megan Garvin and Jesse Enderle. All of them were in multiple opera scenes, each requiring completely different singing styles and acting abilities.
If you needed proof that the era of glorious singing but poor (if any) acting in opera is over and finished, you need look no further that this talented group of singing actors. Every one of them did an excellent job of creating the character as well as singing the challenging music. The intimate setting of the McDavid Studio worked well for the semi-concert presentation. There were no costumes, sets or properties. However, within the constraints of no or minimal movement, the singers brought their characters to life in a manner worthy of a mainstage production.
Two excellent conductors took turns at the podium, and they were completely different in both style and technique. One was Stephen Dubberly, who is the Associate Professor in the Division of Conducting and Ensembles at the University of North Texas, and who serves as music director of UNT Opera. He is a romantic at heart and every move he makes is expressive and instantly communicates to both the performers and to the audience.
The other was Tyson Deaton, best known as one of New York City’s foremost opera coaches. He made a great impression last season with the FWO by conducting the very challenging score of Glory Denied. I stand by my description of him that I made at the time: “Calm, cool and confident, keeping his constantly changing but precise beat pattern within a reserved two-foot frame, the unflappable Deaton delivers a passionate and virtuoso performance by force of will.
Two pianists also took turns playing the orchestral reductions. You assume that these are reductions of larger instrumental scores since none was announced as being just for piano. Emily Jarrell Unbanek and Jody Schum were both equally fine at mastering the sometimes very difficult writing, keeping precisely with the conductors and supporting the singers.
However, and it is a huge “however,” the piano they were given was a complete disgrace. It was a clunker of an upright—not even worthy of a church basement, let alone an opera performance. Worse, it was wildly out of tune with some notes sounding like the peg slipped on one or more of the strings. The dreadful sound it emitted was a constant distraction. There is no excuse for an organization on the professional level of the FWO to use such an instrument in a public performance. Well, maybe in the opening of Porgy and Bess, where it is called for—but that is it.
In a Mirror, Darkly
Music by Christopher Weiss and text by S. O’Duinn Magee
Act II, "A Woman Scorned"
This score was a blizzard of meter changes and technical finger-busting writing for the piano. Both Deaton and Urbanek met these challenges. The big question is “Why all the meter changes?” The same effects can often be achieved with the placement of accents without creating such a counting nightmare. In the era of greatly reduced rehearsal schedules, composers can sabotage their own works. The music was most impressive when it was simpler and it built to an impressive big moment. At other times, it seemed to wander, although you suspected that every note was purposeful. The text, which deals with a brilliant woman who is devalued by society, was occasionally on the preachy side.
Something To Live For
Music and words by Ronnie Reshef
This opera is concerned with a woman trying to find her son in the labyrinth of concentration camps. Reshef said that as a Jew and a mother with a son, the story really spoke to her. ]It is told in a series of flashbacks. The song “My Boy” was very effective in its simple nature - a melody and sparse choral accompaniment. The third selection was an ensemble, a quartet of prisoners. Once again, the accompaniment was just that—accompaniment —without a separate identity of its own. Some of it was in unison and some unaccompanied. The last aria “Glowing Boy” was more expansive and the most impressive moment of the score.
Music by David Vayo and words by Nancy Steele Brokaw
This one is a commissioned project. The subject is a family farm and what the grown children will do with it now that dad is gone. The composer said that he tried to find a musical language that fits each scene, and he uses quite a variety from jazz to a simple melody with plain accompaniment. Spoken words turn into singing, and the harmony is interesting—complex yet tonal underneath. The duet “Box of our Life” is a familiar subject—a box of mementos, worthless to anyone else. Some of the rhymes were clumsy but words and music created a moving moment.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Music and libretto by Herschel Garfein
Based on Tom Stoppard’s wonderful comedy, this one has a big advantage before it even starts. Musically, he harkens back to the Shakespearian roots. One way he does this is keeping the tradition of having a minor boy character—here a pants role—step forth and sing a song. Some of the other music is like accompanied recitative. There is also a passage reminiscent of a barcarolle when the action is on a boat. Complex chords seem to resolve to triads.
Alex in Transition
Words and music by Anthony Green
This one deals with the subject of sexual reassignment. Although odd at first, the subject of Alex’s self-discovery, that he is really a woman in his soul, is very operatic indeed. The music underlines this situation by using open intervals that can be made either major or minor at anytime by the addition of a third. The piano has lots of short staccato passages, but the vocal lines are long over all the busywork in the accompaniment. Once again, when there is a social point to be made, the dialogue is on the didactic side.
Music and libretto by Brent Straughan
This work also takes on a politically touchy subject. It concerns a young couple as they try to escape from Sarajevo during the horrors of the Bosnian War. The music is severe with some of the singing unaccompanied and interspersed with cadenzas.
Music by Matthew Peterson and text by Jason Zencka
A courtroom drama that came out of the real-life experiences of the librettist as a courtroom journalist. Musically, there is a fast waltz for the soprano that is reminiscent of Monica’s waltz in Menotti’s The Medium. The accompaniment is not very interesting and of little assistance to the singers. You cannot help but wonder what it will sound like with an orchestra.
Music by Robert Paterson and text by David Cote
This work (originally called Safe Word when it was announced on this program) was the highlight of the entire project, mostly because of its lurid subject matter. One scene is about a “companion” who is a sexual partner. However, that role is fulfilled by a robot that is just like a real man, only better. The second scene was an S&M sexual encounter between a man and a hired dominatrix. (There’s an O’Henry ending.) The language, action and situation are X-rated, but the mood is humorous. The dialogue is very clever. Things get rough and end with “breath games” or autoerotic asphyxia, the practice of strangling oneself almost to the point of death, which supposedly gives you an incredible high and a mind-blowing orgasm. Talk about something you never thought you’d see acted out on the opera stage. The scene was terrifically played by the singers and got lots of nervous laughs. In fact, it was so involving that it is difficult to recall anything specific about the music itself. This is a great compliment to a musical stage work, and it is easy to see why this opera having a great success. The question is: in what opera house?
Truth be told, we’re excited to see which opera houses select any of these operas seen in Frontiers, and to see what selections this series gives us in 2015. Submissions are due May 31, 2014.