Spring Awakening: Activity at NYC's Small Opera Companies

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On May 11, the Metropolitan Opera ended its 2012-2103 season with a flourish. In the afternoon, Valhalla burned down, all the gods met their ends, the Rhine overflowed to put out the fires and reclaim its gold, and all was right with the world. Until, that is, the evening came and a convent of Carmelite nuns were beheaded.

I used to have a slight depression when the Met ended its season because, in the past, there were few interesting opera offerings until the big company began its new season in late September. Things have changed for the better, as I have discovered. I will tell you about some of what I have heard and enjoyed.

I entered this post-Met period with my mind and spirit awash in two works of art I had just seen. The first is a musical called Here Lies Love, about Imelda Marcos and her world, at the Public Theater. I have not encountered any kind of theatrical performance so fresh and wonderful in a very long time. The original inspiration was by David Byrne, who conceived it and composed it (with collaborative input from Fat Boy Slim). There is a fantastic cast of actors I did not know, led by Ruthie Ann Miles as Imelda, and a production (directed by Alex Timbers) so thrillingly innovative that I smile with pleasure whenever I think of it.

There are stages at either end of a rectangular space and platforms that a tech crew moves about throughout the 90-minute show. The audience moved with them as the platforms broke into various configurations and we became, briefly, part of the cast. This was immersive theater at its most exciting. I gather that a cast album has been made for future release, but this is a show that demands to be seen to be fully experienced. It runs until July 28.

The other work that continues to resonate is Noah Baumbach’s film, Frances Ha, starring Greta Gerwig. This is a depiction of young New Yorkers who struggle to be creative, to hook up while yearning for affection, and to find their emotional moorings. It left a strong impression on me because I meet people like this all the time, full of energy and hope but also anxiety and disillusionment. I realize that the New York City that is a legacy of Mayors Koch, Giuliani and Bloomberg is one in which it is harder than ever to start something fresh and innovative as everything globalizes and corporatizes. And yet, miraculously, people keep trying to create. As Mussorgsky said, “The artist has faith in the future because he lives in it.”

Here is what I have been up to: May 12 was Mother’s Day. Some enterprising company could have presented a cavalcade of operatic mothers, including Agrippina (Nero’s mom); Medea; Azucena’s last scene in Il Trovatore with her boys Manrico and the Conte di Luna; Norma dithering about killing her kids; Erda (the operatic Octomom) issuing her warnings; Marcellina’s “recognition scene” with Figaro in Le Nozze di Figaro; Elektra’s run-in with Klytemnestra; and the final scene from Suor Angelica.

As there was no such event and my mother gave me a raincheck, I was able to attend a wedding whose musical components were far and away the best I have ever experienced during rites of matrimony. My colleague Paul du Quenoy married his beloved Irina in a Russian Orthodox service held in the Church of St. Seraphim in Sea Cliff, NY. The attendees stood for well over an hour, surrounding the couple, who had very little to do compared to most weddings. In effect, the service was being performed on them. We walked about too, and it was as immersive as Here Lies Love. I felt as if I were in a production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride or Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina with a much happier ending. A magnificent choir interjected narrative in a service sung and spoken by a priest and a deacon. One of these men was named Vadim Gan, who came from Chicago to officiate. He had the most amazing bass I have heard in years and I sincerely suggest that the Lyric Opera of Chicago find this man and hear him right away.

May 20: I attended Olivo e Pasquale, a Donizetti comedy I had never even heard of, at the Amore Opera. This enterprising company presented the American premiere of Mercadante’s I Due Figaro last year. This season’s main offering was Faust, with the Met’s Gregory Buchalter (also music director of Fairbanks Opera and Opera Las Vegas) leading an energetic performance staged by Nathan Hull. It was held in the Connelly Theater on East 4th Street, a charming space new to me that brought to mind small-town Italian opera houses built in the 1930s.

May 22:  Alessandro Scarlatti’s Il Trionfo dell’Onore presented by Underworld Productions Opera at Symphony Space. Musically and dramatically this was a polished and professional performance that made a very strong case that Scarlatti’s works need more productions.

May 25: Don Giovanni in a Brooklyn loft near the Gowanus Canal, presented by a wonderful new group called LoftOpera. Outside it looks like the setting of Il Tabarro, which takes place on a barge in the Seine River. Every few minutes the lights of a passing F train on elevated tracks formed a necklace moving against the dark of night. The loft was largely sound-proofed. One external noise penetrated the walls five minutes after the Commendatore was killed. It was the siren of an emergency vehicle and was the one time I can think of where that sound entering a theater space made perfect sense.

LoftOpera was founded in 2012 by Daniel Ellis-Ferris (the producer, who also sang Masetto) and Dean Buck, the conductor of the performance. Ellis-Ferris’s sister, Brianna Maury, is general manager. They were part of the Brooklyn loft show scene, but realized no one was doing opera. Their program statement says, “LoftOpera is an effort to rebrand opera in the underground music scene in Brooklyn. We use loft venues to create immersion theater, reduced length productions of great operas. The budget is low, the excitement is high, the beer is local brew, and the music is really, really good.” According to Ellis-Ferris, “Opera, when experienced this way, is kind of punk. As in, a whole lot of sound.”

I am down with all of this, except the word “rebrand” for opera. This art form is great and very often edgy. Let’s keep marketing-speak out of it, because that creates a context of looking at opera in ways that don’t benefit it or the people who perform it. The LoftOpera performance of Don Giovanni was sensational precisely because they eschewed any effort at “relevance” and dug deep into the ideas in the words and music and found very fresh, original ways of presenting them in this unusual space, one that became part of the performance. When the Don sang “Deh viene alla finestra” (“Come to the window”) there really was one.

The costuming by Barbara Begley was contemporary but with incredible attention to character. We perfectly understood class distinctions as Leporello’s bedraggled garments set him apart from Masetto’s rustic yellow shirt and suspenders, Don Ottavio’s burgundy vest and Don Giovanni’s very smart black suit with a blood-red handkerchief in his pocket. Comparable distinctions were found in the costumes of Zerlina, Donna Elvira and Donna Anna. Leporello’s catalogue aria was illustrated with a series of women’s underwear drawn from a sack, a brilliantly original idea, brilliantly executed.

The cast was wonderful. There were some notable cuts in arias and other music, recitatives and some dances, but the integrity of the story was not severely affected. Cuts in opera, though regrettable for obvious reasons, are hardly uncommon and many major companies do them all the time.

Here was immersive theater of great originality, presented by talented and serious young people. I have seldom exited an opera performance feeling so happy.

How fitting that May 29 is the centennial of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which is all about shaking up the status quo. WQXR and Q2 Music are devoting programming to this revolutionary work.

In my next article, I will offer New York-area opera lovers a lot to see and hear within reach of the metropolitan area this summer. The first thing you should check out is the American Lyric Theater, which presents InsightALT, a festival of new operas, at the JCC on Amsterdam Avenue. On May 28, Catherine Malfitano, the distinguished soprano, director and teacher, will conduct a master class in which she coaches some of the most talented young singers around in roles for three operas that ALT helped develop. The festival runs through June 3, including two symposia and presentations of the new operas.