"Opera" is one of those terms, like "classical music," that poorly serves to describe an entire world of artistic endeavor. Writers strive in vain to define the difference between opera and Broadway shows when opera companies produce Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and Broadway mounts a production of Puccini's La Boheme. "Popera" works like Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera and Claude-Michel Schönberg's Les Misérables further cloud the virtually non-existent borders.
This is nothing new. What is arguably Gian Carlo Menotti's masterpiece, The Consul, played on Broadway in 1950 before La Scala, one of the world's great opera houses, presented it in 1951. Works as diverse as Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and Leonard Bernstein's Candide live in a similar netherland between the opera house and the theater.
The Dallas Opera and the Dallas Theater Center joined hands in a very different way when The Lighthouse opened at the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre on Friday. Rather than taking a Broadway-ish opera-leaning show to the opera house, they took an unmistakable hardcore, intermissionless chamber opera, written in a dissonant 20th century language, to the theater. The results are a stunning and memorable production that transcends any of the labels that can be stuck on such a theatrical experience.
Musically, Peter Maxwell Davies writes in an unabashedly modernist musical language that was all the rage in 1979, but sounds slightly dated today. He tosses in some American folk elements, such as in the three solo arias for the characters. One uses banjo-pickin' bluegrass, another is like the sentimental ballades popular at the turn of the 19th century, while the last is based on Protestant foursquare Salvation Army-style brass band and tambourine hymnology. In this, Davies stands in a distinguished line of American composers who include the indigent music of their social milieu in their compositions. This includes Charles Ives, William Schuman and Virgil Thompson. The main body of Davies' music, against which these elements are juxtaposed, is dissonant, fragmented, rhythmically complex, percussion heavy, and difficult to absorb at first (or even at a later) hearing.
Yet, such music has found a welcome home in horror and suspense movies, if not in the concert hall. Thus, it doesn't sound much out of place to the ears of modern audiences in the spooky story of The Lighthouse, while it might have alienated in a mushy love story. Here, Davies' astringent musical language contributes to the claustrophobic atmosphere and mentally unbalanced hothouse that leads to madness and murder.
Based on a true story, the three protagonists of The Lighthouse have been locked up in the small isolated space for months and their relief crew is long overdue. Just recently, The New York Times ran an editorial about the caustic effects of solitary confinement, which can "…cause depression and rage after a few days, with severe mental suffering when imposed for longer periods." Such is the case here.
The opera starts with an official inquiry into the disappearance of the three caretakers, with the same three singers playing the investigators, and ends with a gruesome, but possible, explanation as to what actually happened. Nothing is "right" from the very opening and Davies' abstract musical voice creates a surreal world throughout, right up to the compulsively repeated pattern that brings the opera to its shattering close.
The three singers are fine singing actors who would not be out of place in either a Winspear Opera House mainstage opera production or a Wyly Theatre play. Robert Orth, who last appeared in the Dallas Opera production of Moby-Dick, is one of the finest singer/actors working in opera today. His portrayal of the morally bankrupt petty thief is a study in slime. Tenor Andrew Bidlack gives his young character an invented innocence that is all the more pathetic when we find out that a vaguely implied childhood sexual indiscretion led to life-changing shame. Daniel Sumegi, an impressive bass, thunders his damming and constricted religiosity until it literally drives the other two crazy.
The set, by Beowulf Boritt, looks like excavated ruins of a lighthouse than has been deserted for centuries. Perhaps we are watching ghosts of the three unfortunates who re-enact their tragedy over and over for all eternity. Going back to the beginning music and setting at the end of the opera could imply that this is, however horrible to contemplate, a possibility.
The water that surrounds the lighthouse was barely visible on the orchestra seating level. One member of the audience, seated nearby my location, didn't even know that the stage was flooded. Perhaps this "lake" worked better in the balconies but it was unnecessary. Claudia Stephens costumes were simple and effective in creating an era that was not too specific but definitely sometime in the past.
Kevin Moriarty, artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center, shines in his first outing as an opera director. His concept is realistic, yet there is something bizarre in the air from the first moments. He gets naturalistic performances from his three accomplished actors that become increasingly bizarre on such a gentle incline that you hardly realize how strange everything has become when the final horror is revealed.
However, the real star of the production is conductor Nicole Paiement. She conducted the complex score with such feeling and understanding that every one of the myriad of time-signature changes vanished into a free-flowing score. Her clear beat pattern was absolutely precise but still expressive at every moment. If you were watching a video of her performance, with the sound turned off, you would still know exactly where she was. The small orchestra was able to play the difficult and thorny score with musicality because they were secure in the knowledge that she would always be there for them should they need her.
The Lighthouse is a thought-provoking production of a challenging chamber opera piece. It shines a light to an artistic harbor that could end up redefining and refreshing both artforms—theater and opera—in an era of stifling artistic segregation and increasing specialization. The kind of partnership that this production represents gives this writer a glimmer of hope for a revitalization and redefinition of intrinsically intertwined but separate art forms that is imperative to keep them both alive in a period of financial retrenchment and anti-cultural popularism.
◊ To see video from dress rehearsal of The Lighthouse, as well as our behind-the-scenes series on the making of this project, go to our seventh installment of the series, here. From there, you can see the others.