On Sunday evening at the Park & Bark Arts Center in Newark, NJ I heard a performance of what is, without question, the most unusual opera I’ve ever heard.
I’d been eagerly awaiting the New York premiere of The Iceberg since news broke of its most unusual discovery last year, when thousands of scattered pages of the score had been found mysteriously floating down the Hudson River. Once collected and assembled, musicologists had been unable to determine exactly who wrote the opera, although all agreed it was a work of genius, and far ahead of its time. Much like the operas of Richard Wagner called for stage innovations when they premiered in the 19th century, so too does this opera. The Iceberg will be a challenge to any opera house attempting to present it.
However, one element that especially concerned me was the storyline, a conflating of the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark with the historical voyage of the Titanic. Was this really a wise idea? And while the premiere narrowly missed the centennial anniversary of the Titanic voyage, it was marginally relevant because this year marks the 6,254th anniversary of the launch of Noah’s Ark.
Act One took place in the luxurious ballroom of Noah’s Titanic, a spectacular masked ball. Glorious music from the reconstructed score perfectly matched the opulence onstage. No expense had been spared on the sets or the costumes. Even the pairs of animals looked impressed by their surroundings. If there were protagonists to be met and propel the story forward, they either weren’t present in this act, or, if they were onstage, were easily overshadowed by the dancing rhinos (who also sang some marvelous tenor arias). Indeed, there was so much happening onstage one didn’t know where to look, a literal zoo in the full sense of the word.
My singular criticism centered on the dolphin, sung by Flipper Figaro of Miami, who chirped an awkward soprano aria through a window in the middle of the act. Not only did it stall the dramatic storyline (although I could not discern what this dramatic storyline might be), it seemed completely inauthentic. If there is one piece of common knowledge about opera, it is the realism of the stories. Operas are typically pure journalism simply set to music, and everything about this production rang true - the water onstage was salt water as it would be in the ocean, the Titanic was built to scale, but we all know that dolphins do not live in the mid-Atlantic. Not the strongest casting choice, in my opinion.
Act Two presented the most technical challenges for the stage and performers. This was the climactic scene - the famous night Noah’s Titanic hits the iceberg, performed by an absolutely sensational Arctic baritone (who’s name I can’t pronounce). The massive ship, which took up much of the stage, appeared to be nautically challenged, and it missed the iceberg twice, each time having to turn around and have another go at it. In the greatest surprise of the evening, this unexpected difficulty presented the iceberg with a chance to shine vocally, his aria being extended considerably while the Titanic maneuvered around him. His voice was spectacular, thick and rich, cutting through the orchestra with great clarity, no doubt due to his sizable girth (which makes for excellent sound production). It should be noted that, despite the cold water onstage, the iceberg performed in the nude for purposes of authenticity. Finally, on the third try, the Titanic smashed into the iceberg, providing a spectacular ending to the scene while the final chords echoed ominously through the hall.
Act Three was the tragic conclusion of the opera, the sinking of Noah’s Titanic. Since much of the cast had evacuated by lifeboats at this point, only Noah’s animals populated the main deck, and it was a muscular bull that dominated the stage and sang a coloratura aria as the ship went down. Despite his thick Spanish accent, the meaningful lyrics resonated with all of us.
Smoking cigarette after cigarette, he sang of the joys of nicotine, what a pain it was to quit smoking, if ever there was a time for a puff this was it, how sad it was that he had been diagnosed with consumption, and in a lengthy cadenza, he pleaded for penicillin. This final lyric was especially prophetic, since it was later determined the opera was composed in 1327, a mere 600 years before the discovery of penicillin. And with the bull’s final cry, the mighty ship lurched and sank dramatically, in the process sending a torrent of water across the stage and into the theater.
Never before had I heard music of such bold character. Never before had I experienced drama on such a large canvas. And certainly never before had I nearly drowned while sitting in the expensive seats. Indeed, it is a rare opera performance that lifts one out of one’s seat and literally throws one out of the building. Everyone should witness this operatic spectacle, for it was an evening I shall never forget.
Happy April Fool's Day!