Little’s savage “Dog Days” paints a devastating future at PROTOTYPE
Thanks to the PROTOTYPE Festival, David T. Little’s opera, Dog Days, has finally come to New York City. Almost four years after premiering at Peak Performances in Montclair, New Jersey, the opera opened Saturday night at NYU’s Skirball Center, where it will have a brief run. Buy tickets immediately, because this is a rare experience.
It is also difficult and upsetting, and not for delicate sensibilities. The opera is adapted by librettist Royce Vavrek from a story of the same title by Judy Budnitz. Dog Days is set in a near-future America, with the country at war, society falling apart, and a family in the middle of it all that is slowly starving to death. The central character is Lisa, a thirteen year old girl, who lives with her father, Howard, her mother, and her brothers Elliott and Pat. The dog of the title is Prince, a man who wears a dog suit and acts determinedly like a dog and who hangs around outside the house, begging for garbage scraps.
The family eats grass from their yard, and depends on U.S. Army rations that are dropped from helicopters. Those moments of ominous stagecraft (directed by Robert Woodruff with sets and video by Jim Findlay) are reminiscent of Apocalypse Now and gun-camera videos from our ongoing wars.
Schools are closed, people live in isolation from other families and each other. Lisa writes to her imaginary friend Marjorie; mom’s legs won’t move when she wants them to; Howard stares at a broken TV; and Elliott and Pat hide cans of food and dream about repopulating the world of the future (not because they want to be fathers).
The drama moves primarily through Lisa (soprano Lauren Worsham) and Howard (baritone James Bobick). In her naïvete, Lisa wants her life to be as normal as she imagines it should be, while Howard wants the stereotypical standards of society to hold true, and rescue him. But there is nothing normal left, and Dog Days’ tragedy moves inexorably on two parallel lines.
Worsham is excellent, the strength of her performance primarily in her voice. Little gives Lisa an aria in Act I that begins with her warming up to Prince and ends with her in terror as she admits to herself the state of things. Worsham built the large-scale line from childish dawdling to explosive anguish in a scorching performance.
Howard has reveries of regret, flashes of stern anger, moments of crazed pride. Bobick was a strong actor, but the role has less to do with the voice. Little’s rising and falling lyricism is strong throughout—Mother and Howard each have eloquent moments—his dialogue music is serviceable, and the men (tenors Michael Marcotte and Peter Tantsits were Elliott and Pat) have a lot of dialogue. Marcotte and Tantsits found their roles in obnoxiousness. The women (soprano Marnie Breckenridge was Mother) have more to purely sing and they were a pleasure to hear. Prince was played by the great performance artist John Kelly.
Accompanying them was Little’s own Newspeak ensemble, augmented by additional musicians. Alan Pierson conducted. The music is not just accompaniment but the sound of the world around the characters, and the playing was confident and forceful.
As things fall apart, the vocal music clings to a sparse lyricism that turns the already visceral experience of the denouement into art. One is haunted and abraded by premonitions of how the end will come, and the singing and music make the mind-tearing conclusion excruciatingly sublime.
In the program, Little states that the opera explores “the nature of choice and consequence … and what it truly means to be human.”
This is not fully realized. Prince is essential to the drama, but is less than a full character. He is an object acted upon. Lisa sees that he is a man but accepts him as a dog, while Howard sees Prince eating a bird and tries to give him the shirt off his back and make him act like the human Prince is. In the horrific climax, the drama abandons the dog conceit entirely.
In Act II, the libretto is larded with superfluous explications, stiff expositions of thoughts and feelings that have already been clearly shown. Howard in particular is forced into explaining a particular choice by a dramatic mechanism that feels forced. The libretto’s pace grinds to a standstill, and the force that grows in Act I dissipates. But once Act III begins, it rises again almost immediately, and grows into a bludgeon.
It in no way diminishes the impact of that bludgeon or the effectiveness of Dog Days to say that the opera stays on the surface it lays out. Rather than an examination of what it means to be human, the opera is an endurance contest for human morality, for how long one can remain true to one’s own spirit and values in the face of the worst circumstances. The fundamental choice is not humanity but survival. Some survive, some don’t.
Dog Days runs through January 11 prototypefestival.org.