Fresh-Squeezed Opera offers a trio of compelling premieres with “The Female Gaze”

Sat Feb 02, 2019 at 1:46 pm

Barbara Porto performed Gabrielle Herbst’s “First Lady of the Air” Friday night at Fresh-Squeezed Opera.

New York is rich in tiny upstart companies working to find ways to make opera engaging for new audiences. Fresh-Squeezed Opera stands out among these for its impressive commitment to championing new works. Nearly all of its performances so far have been premieres. 

FSO’s Friday evening performance at Roulette in Brooklyn in fact featured three commissions, each about 20 minutes. These felt more like one-voice oratorios than operas per se, though that may have been in part because they were performed without staging. 

The evening’s title, “The Female Gaze,” nodding to the concept of “The Male Gaze” that originated in critical film theory, might have set the audience up to expect a more pointed reversal of that phenomenon than was apparent. But what FSO offered was compelling enough on its own: three accomplished pieces by female composers, for female singers, about female characters. 

First of the three was Whitney George’s Lost Without You, conducted by the composer herself. George’s text is somewhat opaque, made up of fragmentary recollections of emotions and experiences rather than putting together a clear narrative. Part of the mandate for the commissioning project was the use of electronics, and George’s solution is to add more voices through recorded sound, opening with a chorus of whispers and echoing the singer with her own voice. Mezzo-soprano Nicholle Bittlingmeyer was admirable in her approach to a tough, high-pushing vocal part: she couldn’t help sounding tight in her upper range, but she consistently showed a warm, deep body in the voice.

Lost Without You’s orchestra of viola, cello, bass clarinet, piano, and percussion keeps a nearly constant pace, hewing close to a central pulse. A feeling of added momentum is achieved through subdivision, but the same meditative thrumming persists underneath. George uses sonic weight to create variety in her writing—at one crucial moment, heavy tolling in the piano duels with the bass drum, contrasting starkly with the piece’s haunting finish, where we hear a soft duet between xylophone and the sparkling top keys of the piano.

Gemma Peacocke’s Invocation called for the smallest forces, at least of conventional instruments: the combination of soprano, cello, and piano calls to mind the proportion and color of a classical piano trio. Peacocke adapted her text from ancient Egyptian magical hymns, giving the singer’s character a magical incantation, at times seeming to list ingredients for some kind of spell. The construction of the text is an interesting idea, but unfortunately much of it was difficult to distinguish in the performance by Jane Hoffman, so that only fragments (“a single onion!”) stood out, as bizarre and isolated outbursts.

Peacocke’s use of electronics showed the most variety among the three composers, and in some ways was the most integrated with the other instruments. Pre-recorded pizzicato and eerie synthesized effects play directly with the cello’s harmonics and the simple open chords of the piano. Peacocke gives the music overall a percussive feel with her angular rhythms, which are mirrored in the vocal writing, where disjointed phrases create a sense of supernatural intensity.

The final work of the evening was Gabrielle Herbst’s First Lady of the Air, adapting quotations from Amelia Earhart, poetry about her disappearance, and text from the notebook of Betty Brown, who claimed to have heard a conversation between Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan over short-wave radio as a child. Herbst achieves a bright, airy sound in her writing with an ensemble of piano, clarinets, flute, and percussion. Open harmonies in the piano become more agitated and crowded to follow the text as it builds in urgency, supported by a pre-recorded chorus of women’s voices that seem almost to mock the singer’s growing fear, echoing her question, “Are you scared,” through the speakers: “scared—scared—scared!” Herbst herself operated the electronic cues while George conducted the bright ensemble of clarinets, flute, piano, and percussion.

The vocal writing in First Lady of the Air is mostly simple and compact, but the phrases are charged with emotion nonetheless. Herbst lets the color of the voice itself bear a lot of expressive power, lingering uncomfortably on a short phrase. This was the most successful of Friday’s three pieces, in part due to the brilliant performance by soprano Barbara Porto, whose clear, bell-like sound and deep textual connection made Herbst’s writing bloom.


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