New York is blessed with several groups that present music and opera in offbeat venues, including Gotham Chamber Opera, Salon/Sanctuary Concerts, operamission, Bargemusic, and a spunky newcomer: On Site Opera, founded in 2012 by director Eric Einhorn.
OSO’s maiden offering of Shostakovich’s Tale of the Silly Baby Mouse at the Bronx Zoo won cheers from both toddlers and The New York Times. On June 18 and 19 at the Cotton Club, OSO in collaboration with Harlem Opera Theater will present George Gershwin and Buddy DeSylva’s rarely staged one-act opera, Blue Monday (1922). The performances will be preceded by dancing and cocktails, with accompaniments by the Cotton Club All-Stars and members of the Harlem Chamber Players. Maestro Gregory Hopkins leads a cast of top-notch singers.
Operavore caught up with Einhorn between rehearsals to learn more about On Site Opera and Blue Monday.
The Roaring Twenties are having a moment—think of Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby and the Jazz-Age styles it has inspired. How will you and your team bring the era to life?
When we began planning Blue Monday, we had no idea that 2013 would bring a 1920s revival, but we’re more than happy for the trend swinging our way! Because we are a site-specific company, much of the production is dictated by the venue we choose. Our goal in staging Blue Monday at the Cotton Club is to transport the audience back to 1920s Harlem, giving them an honest and gritty portrayal of an exciting period in American history.
The costumes by Candida Nichols pull heavily from period research, filtered through a contemporary sensibility, as does choreographer George Faison’s dance vocabulary. George also brings a deep connection to the musical-theater dance tradition, which links directly to Gershwin’s place in Broadway history.
Opera purportedly “on site” is also having a moment: Puccini’s Turandot has been staged in Beijing and Verdi’s Aida in Luxor. Cynics see this as a desperate ploy to drum up interest in a dying art form. What do you think?
I don’t see site-specific productions as any kind of “desperate ploy.” The venue allows the audience to experience the opera in a manner not possible in a traditional theater because it supports the storytelling in a dynamic way. In founding OSO, I wanted explore what is possible when all of New York City becomes a potential performance space.
Gershwin’s Blue Monday doesn’t even rate an entry in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, perhaps because it had its premiere as part of the Broadway revue Scandals of 1922. What drew you to the piece?
A tragic opera couched in a bubbly Broadway revue can easily fall into obscurity, not to mention that Gershwin had created something entirely new: symphonic jazz. Audiences needed the right context to understand it.
I was first introduced to the piece as a teenager when my voice teacher gave me a recording. In twenty-five minutes, Gershwin tells a riveting, well-paced drama with real human characters—not to mention the density of musical ideas in the score. The opera’s brevity adds to its genius.
Performing Blue Monday at the Cotton Club is an acknowledgment of the enormous influence of African-American music on Gershwin. But as with Porgy and Bess, the issue of race is thorny. You have Gershwin and librettist DeSylva defining African-American characters, sometimes in a stereotyped way, and the piece was first performed by white artists in blackface. What challenges does Blue Monday present for you and your team?
I struggled with the storytelling in Blue Monday for quite a while. The opera at first was much darker and visceral than what has come down to us. It was in applying Gershwin and DeSylva’s original mood to the current score that the opera began to open up to me as a director. It is our job with this production to dig through ninety-one years of blackface baggage to find the truth in Gershwin’s work. At its core, Blue Monday tells a timeless story that will forever speak to audiences: the happy couple destroyed by doubt and jealousy.
Blue Monday nods to Leoncavallo’s I pagliacci with its prologue, which presents the work as an African-American “tragedy enacted in operatic style.” But it also offers a gender-bending twist on the Othello story, with violence perpetrated by a woman wrongly jealous of her lover. For Operavore readers unfamiliar with the work, are these possible points of entry?
Absolutely, and the references speak to Gershwin’s deep understanding of opera and theatre. Joe and Vi become a reverse Othello and Desdemona: Joe is likeable and innocent, Vi fiery and jealous, and Tom, the club headliner, is a clear Iago figure. In Gershwin’s Harlem, though, the lovers are undone not by a handkerchief, but by a telegram.
» Blue Monday plays at the Cotton Club, 656 West 125th Street in Manhattan, on June 18 and 19. Tickets are limited. For further information, visit www.osopera.org.