Experiments in Opera offers six short slices of contemporary life

Sat May 06, 2017 at 12:01 pm
Kate Maroney in Experiments in Opera's "Flash Operas" program Friday night at Symphony Space.

Kate Maroney in Experiments in Opera’s “Flash Operas” program Friday night at Symphony Space.

The enterprising and imaginative group Experiments in Opera have already created a collaborative opera (made by EIO’s three principals, Jason Cady, Aaron Siegel, and Matthew Welch), operas for radio, and operas in the form of movie trailers. To this list of accomplishments, add Flash Operas, a show of six short works that opened Friday night for a weekend run at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia at Symphony Space.

The Flash Operas, all 10–15 minutes in duration, were made by Cady, Siegel, Welch, Cristina Lord, Nicole Murphy, and Miguel Frasconi. Fitting their diminutive stature, all the librettos were derived from short stories. And true to the compact, DIY nature of EIO, they  shared the same handful of props and a talented and enthusiastic rotating cast of four singers.

The tone varied from comic to unsettling, and reflected a consistent contemporary sensibility. Subjects included the foibles and pitfalls of modern life, contemporary history, and shadings of insanity—something for everyone.

Pledge Drive, by Lord, from a story by Patricia Marx, was first. A bit of meta-humor, the story was about Marx herself enlisting the aid of two friends to beg for money, telethon style, so she could sustain herself as a writer.

Lord’s music was lively and showed a special ability to convey sarcasm in the wordless vocal lines of Marx (soprano Elyse Kakacek). Mezzo Kate Maroney and baritone Eric McKeever played her friends, obsequiously touting Marx’s charms and virtues.

Something was off, though. Presented as an opera, this was really just a scene, a joke without musical drama. Fine and enjoyable as far as that goes, it failed to gel. With her friends singing around her, Marx’s character never really came into view—it was like an outline without a center.

The lack of musical drama was also a problem with the next opera, Mandela Was Late, adapted by Murphy from a story by Peter Mehlman. This was the absurd tale of Nelson Mandela (McKeever), post-presidency, still visiting his parole officer, sung by tenor Timothy Stoddard. Stoddard was the focus, his petty, authoritarian, dullard parole officer had the most music; he worried about recidivism and whether, after decades in prison, Mandela was “jacking Beemers.”

As a monologue, this was an effective character study, but also failed to go anywhere. At the end, Mandela is released from parole, and neither he nor the officer were any different.

The remaining four works were much more effective as operas. Welch’s driving, atmospheric score for Level underpinned Keith Scribner’s story of expectant parents; the husband has wrapped himself in a monomania where he must make sure all the furniture in the home is absolutely level.

This was a nicely taut experience. The husband (Stoddard) obsessed over each surface, the wife (Maroney) anguished over the $100 level he bought. Meanwhile the score kept developing while also giving each character distinctive music, all the way to the ambiguous ending, where the husband levels the bed so his wife can sleep comfortably—the drama of the conflict ceased but unresolved.

Siegel’s The Wallet left the deepest effect of the evening in terms of expression and craft. It was an example of how opera can distill a complicated narration into a single experience.

From a story by Andrew McCuaig, the wallet in question belonged to one of two toll booth workers (McKeever and Maroney). The man has a crush on the woman, who keeps her distance. He’s also grateful she returned his lost wallet to him. He leaves it behind again, wherein she takes the cash from it and gives it to a battered woman (Kakacek) who has pulled up, fleeing her partner, asking for help.

The opera captured the characters and their internal and external conflicts, the music shifting with each mood and marking out each interaction. The basic humanity of everyone came through, and the singers were at their most natural and expansive states. A complete, compact drama, well-told.

Things You Should Know, by Miguel Frasconi and a story by that master of intrusive thoughts, A.M. Homes, was powerful, but flawed. With Stoddard, Kakacek, and Maroney singing, this was a gripping examination of a subtle and disturbing idea: having missed a day of school, the protagonist (alternating through each voice) worries that he/she has skipped some essential knowledge, and somehow speaks a language that is behind that of his/her peers.

Frasconi’s score used sharply defined rhythms, phrases, and harmonies to mark a line between reason and madness, which was effective and compelling. But there was also a long, drone-like electronic interlude in which nothing happened. In addition to being entirely superfluous, it dissipated the expressive force that had built up, and the opera never returned to that level.

Wrapping up the night on a high note was Cady’s Voices in My Head. Set in a Tiki bar, this came out of the writing of Jack Handey; surreal craziness and hilarity in other words. With all the singers gleefully dancing and taking turns leading through the rumba-like music, the character followed one’s normal internal dialogue as if it were a gaggle of psychotic voices.

Sporting tropical vacation wear and beer drinking helmets, the ensemble sang lines like “Brush your teeth / Eat some more / Why did you brush your teeth?” Cady’s setting was terrific and neatly tied off, and if it wasn’t strictly an opera, it was damn funny.

The program “Flash Operas” will be repeated 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday. experimentsinopera.com

One Response to “Experiments in Opera offers six short slices of contemporary life”

  1. Posted May 08, 2017 at 1:53 pm by Rebecca Bonnell

    Congratulations, Andrew , for your excellent The Wallet
    Flash Opera is a great idea..

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