Sunday, May 26, 2013

InsightALT Festival: New opera from sketchpad to stage

On Thursday, I got to visit the open rehearsals of all three operas which will be performed at this year's InsightALT festival, a series of events under the auspices of the American Lyric Theater. Founded in 2005, the American Lyric Theater's primary mission is the commissioning and development of new operas; The Golden Ticket, based on Roald Dahl's beloved fable, is one product of their efforts. This year's festival, consisting of masterclasses and round table events as well as opera performances, runs from May 28-June 3 (tickets here.) In keeping with ALT's commitment to audiences as well as artists, festival events will be live-streamed and archived on Opera Music Broadcast. Although the three partnerships of composers and librettists developed their projects separately, the operas will, I think, complement each other nicely. While composed in very different styles, and dealing with dramatically different characters, each of the works engages in some way with painfully split or hybrid identities.

The opera I was most intrigued by going in was The Turing Project, by Justine F. Chen to a libretto by David Simpatico, based on the curious, tragic figure of Nobel laureate Alan Turing, sung here by Jonathan Estabrooks. The musical writing struck me as elliptical and poignant. The scenes I sat in on showed the code-breaker ironically struggling to communicate with the people close to him (but there are hints that a lover might have been an exception.) Turing's mother, a soprano role, is a brittle figure with a brittle BBC accent, sung by Kathryn Guthrie. A chess game scene between Turing and his fiancee portrayed the tragically painful and farcically awkward breaking-up of a relationship with uncomfortable accuracy. Based on this showing, the role for the tender, proud, jilted fiancee (sung by Elise Quagliata) seems rather fabulous. The emotional dynamics in each of the scenes I heard were made more vibrant and precise through music and text coaching. I don't think I got a sense of the mood of the opera as a whole, but given the subject matter, the non-chronological, kaleidoscopic fitting together of the scenes makes sense.

I nearly humiliated myself by conspicuously crying during Jeremy Howard Beck and Stephanie Fleischmann's The Long Walk, based on the memoir of the same name, a soldier's story of war and its devastating psychological effects. A haunting, quasi-Mozartean trio for treble voices gives the backstory in ballad form... but this will be no fairy tale; the quest has already damaged the hero, perhaps beyond repair. A poignant scena for the soldier's wife (sung by Heather Johnson) adds both historical and personal depth. I didn't get to hear much of the music for Bryan (the protagonist, sung by Daniel Belcher,) but a jogging/flashback aria seemed very dramatically promising. A dinner table scene where conversations about hockey skates and disputes over carrots interwove with a PTSD episode was nothing less than amazing. Even in excerpt and in rehearsal, I found this thoroughly gripping.

In La Reina, a bilingual opera about drug-smuggling, the romantic sensibilities of Puccini meet the romantic sensibilities of Arturo Pérez-Reverte, on whose gritty, sensual thriller Queen of the South the plot is based. I was very impressed both by the variety of Jorge Sosa's score and the wit in the libretto of Laura Sosa Pedroza. The opening scene echoes the insistent theme music and sensationalized statistics of US prime time television, to uncomfortably hilarious effect. The libretto cleverly played on the easily polarized attitudes towards women in power (is the protagonist a queen, or a monster, an aberration?) A later scene among drug-smugglers was musically quite exciting. My Spanish is rudimentary, but as far as I could make out, this involved negotiations, possibly schisms, some resolved; the queen was unequivocally exultant. For her at least (at least here) her power is not sexualized, though it may well be an aphrodisiac. For those who like their opera melodramatic (and who doesn't, really?) La Reina looks as though it will be a treat, and one not without intellectual commentary.

I'm still sorting out my schedule for the coming weeks, but I will report from all the performances I can attend.

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