Collaborative “Sisyphus” opera makes clever and admirable ascent
Experiments in Opera is the cooperative production venture of three composers, Matthew Welch, Jason Cady, and Aaron Siegel, who have been presenting their own work, and that of over a dozen other contemporary composers, since 2011.
Their latest production—which opened Friday night at the Abrons Arts Center—is a new, collaborative chamber opera that radically updates the myth of Sisyphus, the ancient king who was punished for revealing the secret that Zeus was romancing Aegina, daughter of the river god Asopus. There are variations in the details, but ultimately Sisyphus was condemned in the underworld to roll a boulder up a hill, the boulder growing in size and weight the higher he pushed it, until it overwhelmed him and rolled back down.
What makes Experiments in Opera’s Sisyphus notable is how entertaining it is; what makes it unusual is how the three composers went about making it. Reading between the lines of the program note, and hearing the music, shows that Welch, Cady, and Siegel split up characters and scenes amongst themselves.
Sisyphus is not an Exquisite Corpse exercise—the three had different responsibilities but worked together to make a coherent libretto and opera. The libretto, actually, is quite complex, it not only makes the myth contemporary (Sisyphus informs 911, not Asopus, that Zeus has taken Aegina), but elides it with the story of a lonely teenager named Aegie who is obsessed with eagles, an artist named Brianna, and three bank robbers, who get the story moving and don’t return until the finale, when they wrap a very meta bow around the package.
Three singers play all the parts (there are nine in all), and they carried the opera, both by design and through their talent. Soprano Lucy Dhegrae was Aegina and her doppelgänger Aegie, mezzo Kate Maroney was Brianna, and tenor Vince B. Vincent was Aegina’s gym friend Jake, Zeus and Sisyphus. All three singers made up the bank robbers.
With a minimal set and constant action, the opera is driven by words, but is not verbose—the libretto is smart and irreverent. The characters sing about themselves and tell each other what is going on, except for Brianna, whose part is obscure. And the instrumental accompaniment is limited, so that the musical emphasis is on the voices to an unusual degree.
That generally works, these are fine singers, full of energy, who can be dramatic and comedic in turns. And there is a lot of comedy, from Aegina mistaking a shih-tzu for Zeus, to Sisyphus making his grand entrance to a saucy disco tune. Dhegrae, who seems to be everywhere new music is being sung, is a particularly strong and versatile performer, and Vincent is witty and charismatic—as Sisyphus, he not only rolled his large, golden exercise ball back and forth across the laps of audience members, but batted it back and forth into the seats, as if it was the seventh-inning stretch at Dodger Stadium.
The music is not always at the same level. Part of the problem was the necessity of limited instrumentation on what is surely a tiny budget: vibraphone, cello, bass and occasional burbling rhythms from Cady’s modular synthesizer. The music began in sharp post-minimal style, with Brianna singing a series of numbers, although her character is tangential, she has the best music. Through the first few scenes, as the characters appear, the music is inventive.
But as the piece moved along through its fifty-five minute duration, the score recycled previous elements into musical set pieces. Along with an increasing sensation that the accompaniment was an over-extended continuo, there were stretches of monotony, relieved by Cady’s electronic rhythms. The lack of variety made the score sound like it had been written by only one person.
The production team of director Ethan Heard, and stage, lighting and projection designers Kristen Robinson, Masha Tsimring, and Nicholas Hussong, did a lot with a little, creating striking moments when Aegie steps out of a bedroom window, only to be caught in midair by a giant eagle, in animation shown on the teenager’s computer screen. Zeus then dramatically entered through the window, clothed in black and with two enormous wings wrapped over his arms.
Balancing the darkness in the drama was the self-referential and self-deprecating wit at the end. Cady stepped from behind his station to receive congratulations from Kate (Maroney), one of the bank robbers. The opera, she sang, was a hit with the critics and the audience, and Cady was rolling in dough, he would just have to tour forever. (Is that a composer’s good dream or nightmare?) The money doesn’t last though, because the remaining robbers return. Gunplay ensues, and it turns out the real winners are the musicians.
Sisyphus continues through February 21. experimentsinopera.com