Secret Opera explores the lives of two famous female characters, uninterrupted
The Secret Opera is one of the small, imaginative opera companies rapidly proliferating in New York City. They are nimble, make the most of limited resources, and present talented singers and new works that are outside the physical and financial scope of the Metropolitan Opera.
Of these small, peripatetic companies, Secret Opera is one of the smallest. In the tiny Scholes Street Studio in Williamsburg Saturday night, they presented two monodramas by Daniel Felsenfeld, under the title She, After. Starring in each was the charismatic soprano Alexis Rodda, one of Secret Opera’s founding directors.
She, After is two-thirds of what Felsenfeld sees as a three-act evening, with individual parts that can stand alone. What threads them together is not a linear plot but a concept: taking characters in literature and telling a story that picks up just after their last page. The first act is “Alice in the Time of the Jabberwock,” which finds Alice, aging and entering menopause, still stuck down the rabbit hole. The second, “Nora, in the Great Outdoors,” begins just after the end of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, with Nora facing her future out in the metaphorical wilds of society.
The double-bill was an ideal match for Secret Opera’s overall mission, which Rodda stated in an after-performance talk was to bring socially relevant operas before the public. The explicit aim of Felsenfeld and the company is to present women who are generally lost in pop and material culture: older women, balanced on the line between independence and loneliness. That may read as didactic—and the post-performance discussion didn’t entirely avoid undergraduate liberal arts seminar cliches—yet the music and performances were strong and involving, succeeding on their own dramatic terms.
The space and production (directed by Sarah Outhwaite) were modest. The costume for Alice was an everyday dress and the set was a hanging scroll of paper on which Rodda was drawing and coloring with crayons as the audience entered. Nora was presented by nothing more than Rodda in a quasi-Victorian outfit.
Rodda has a lovely voice, full of color and body in every register, and the poise to perform unselfconsciously in an intimate space, which can be more of a challenge than a large hall with 3,000 people. As Alice, she was convincingly emotionally frustrated and physical uncomfortable, and as Nora she was almost serenely dignified, with a gentle demeanor cloaking a granitic backbone.
Felsenfeld writes with skill and understanding for the voice and for the means of music drama, and in these works has superior collaborators in the librettists Robert Coover, for Alice, and Will Eno, with Nora. Each libretto is dramatically strong, singable and musical, organically developed from the original stories.
Alice is strange, funny, frantic and mocking, and has the haunting image of the character trying to fit her body back into the hole that seemed so much larger when she was a little girl: “I could only get my head inside / but far enough to be able to stare up the hold down which I’d fallen / or supposed I had …”
Nora is subtle and marvelous, laying out a transformation from anxiety to determination. Nora goes from singing “My name is Nora / I am an orphan / are you mesmerized? There’s more,” to declaring “Tell the truth, demand the truth / And if you can’t, or won’t even try / get used to the sight of women leaving.”
Felsenfeld’s writing is different for each monodrama (all scored for pianist Jason Wirth, violinist Johannes Lee and cellist InYoung Park, with Nell Flanders conducting). In Alice, the music is nervous and expressionistic, changing quickly with her mercurial moods, reflecting an aging woman trapped in a culture obsessed with a commodified idea of youth. Her last line is “Am I just entertainment for everybody else?” Phrases start and stop, rhythms and chords are broken into shards, some of them glitter while others are dangerously sharp. It’s stimulating but also exhausting at times, and demands the variety of a few more instrumental colors, future budgets permitting.
Nora is consistently homophonic. Eno’s libretto seems an ideal fit for the lines and harmonies closest to Felsenfeld’s sensibility, and where Alice is declarative, almost like a lecture, Nora is a fully realized, compact drama, the words and music expressing a process of discovery and understanding. There are no effects, nor does Felsenfeld do the easy thing and set the strongest feelings to the highest notes. There’s a lot of beauty and intelligence reminiscent of a less patrician Barber. Felsenfeld and Rodda movingly showed Nora as a character unafraid of the unknown.