David T. Little Sets Dystopian Excess with Opera 'Dog Days'

Friday, September 09, 2016

David T. Little Dog Days 'David T. Little: Dog Days' (VIA Records)

A family slowly starves as war ravages America and decimates civilized society. A father hunts (“Get me my rifle!” he bellows as the curtain lifts), but returns empty-handed. A man in a dog suit comes begging for scraps and becomes a frequent visitor, inspiring a daughter’s affection, but her father and brothers’ contempt. “I heard in China people eat dogs.”

David T. Little’s Dog Days, based on a story by Judy Budnitz and setting a libretto by Royce Vavrek, uses a bracing score to psychoanalyze this family’s degeneration. Little grafts pop music, musical theater, industrial electronica, and other influences onto an expansive post-minimalist canvas, creating an opera in turns catchy, kitschy, beautiful and violent. Dog Days poses uncomfortable questions about human nature: how much can the bonds of a desperate family withstand? At our most wretched, what separates us from animals?

The company that gave Dog Days its sensational premiere in 2012 – a crack cast and the ensemble Newspeak, conducted by Alan Pierson – likewise appears on the opera’s premiere recording, and a fine document it is. Voices and instruments are captured with pristine clarity; Little’s hard-rock orchestration never obscures Vavrek’s unsparing text.

There are many highlights to celebrate here. Newspeak is smoking hot. The soloists are uniformly excellent, manifesting a distressed family dynamic with uncanny precision and nuance. James Bobick portrays the alpha-male father, disgraced by failing to provide for his family, with a vocal power that belies his remarkable expressive subtlety. Lauren Worsham, as the daughter, simultaneously breaks your heart and turns your stomach in “Mirror, Mirror,” in which the starving girl delights in her own emaciated image (“You look just like a model, Lisa!”).

Little sets the opera’s startling denouement to a sheer overwhelming tumult of feedback and drones. It makes for a harrowing evening at the theater. When Dog Days was produced at last year’s Prototype Festival, audiences left in dumbfounded horror. For all of the tale’s dystopian excess, the lasting dismay is personal: in such desperate straits, the opera asks, what would you be capable of? This valuable addition to the 21st-century discography preserves that challenge unsettlingly well.

David T. Little: Dog Days
VIA Records | Released September 9

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