Back to the robotic future with Fresh Squeezed Opera’s whimsical premiere

Wed May 17, 2023 at 12:49 pm
Omar Najmi and Emily Solo in the world premiere of Eric Moe’s The Artwork of the Future, presented by Fresh Squeezed Opera. Photo: Whitney George

Attending an opera titled The Artwork of the Future, one’s first thought was of Wagner and Liszt a century and a half ago, promising their followers the “total work of art” and the “Music of the Future.” By that time, the Bach Revival and the persistence of Beethoven’s works had established the idea that a mortal person could create immortal music for future generations.

The opera of that title by composer Eric Moe and librettist Rob Handel, currently in its world-premiere run at Fresh Squeezed Opera, turns that proposition on its head: What if the art was immortal, but the future generations died?

The whimsical, visually dazzling production at the HERE Performing Arts Center on lower Sixth Avenue poses that question through the time-traveling adventures of two struggling artists, the conceptual artist Spearmint Lodge and his songwriting barista girlfriend, Najeen Teflo, as they try to find out if the artworks they are scratching out today will have an audience tomorrow.

Tuesday’s performance found the sturdy tenor Omar Najmi as Spearmint and the lyric soprano Emily Solo as Najeen, fired by the obscurity-to-fame examples of van Gogh and Bach, discovering a time machine and using it to travel to the Guggenheim Museum three hundred years from now.

Triumph! It turns out the future Guggenheim is packed with Spearmint’s works, and Najeen’s songs are echoing through the galleries. There’s just one problem: The audience enjoying the show consists entirely of . . . robots.

A helpful robot museum guide explains that there are no people because, some time back, all the humans died off from despair, drugs, and obsessively checking their phones.

That’s all right with Spearmint—his dystopian art (which involves robots) survives. Najeen fiercely objects—art, she says, is to uplift and preserve humanity. She persuades him to do something about it, and they travel to a time 150 years from now (coincidentally, the time span separating Wagner from us today) and enlist Shirl, a drug-addled socialite, in a campaign to bring “HOPE” to humans everywhere.

A more sober version of Shirl could be your member of Congress this week, trying to figure out how to keep Artificial Intelligence algorithms from busting loose and running the show by themselves. So give Fresh Squeezed Opera an A for timing.

High marks all around, in fact, go to this lively production, brought in at a brisk 70 minutes by stage director Dara Malina and conductor Alex Wen. On Tuesday, Moe’s tuneful, rhythmically infectious, and futuristically atonal score for eight players bubbled with energy. John Lowery’s standard and bass clarinets wove moods from tender to comical. Percussionist Mike Coiro showed he could set a scene with just a few strokes.

Photo: Whitney George

Video designer Jon DeGaetano was a senior partner in telling the story, bathing You-Shin Chen’s futuristic set in images ranging from Johann Sebastian himself to Spearmint hustling under a cathedral-style New York sidewalk shed to whirling geometrical patterns to flying cuckoo clocks and throbbing hamburgers. Jiaying Zhang’s fanciful rotating sculptures doubled as Spearmint’s artworks and time-travel devices.

Daisy Long’s lighting design enhanced the sci-fi vibe, while the costumes by Karen Boyer—fluorescent New York hip for the humans, haute couture with dangling trash bags for Shirl, and hooded onesies and wraparound shades for the robots—added just the right surrealistic touch.

And let’s hear it for Orlando Segarra’s supertitles, discreetly tucked stage left. Even with performers singing in English just a few feet away, the titles came in handy at times. That’s opera.

To say so is to take nothing away from the eager presence of tenor Najmi as Spearmint, firm of voice and bounding around the black-box theater’s small stage. His opening aria of artistic aspiration put an idealistic foundation under the opera’s often manic action. Solo as Najeen initially had some audibility issues behind her coffee counter, but as the character grew in fervor and purpose, she found greater projection and some ringing high notes in her signature song, “27 Years.”

As Ted, the windbag TED talker who fires Spearmint with centuries-spanning ambition, Daniel Klein so filled the room with his foghorn bass-baritone that one could have sworn he had amplification. As the robot museum guide and Shirl’s robot servant Dewey, Klein was less stentorian and more subtly creepy.

In the roles of Shirl and Amalia Habitué, the flirty scientist who teases the artists with the secret of the time machine, Brittany Fowler brought a flexible mezzo-soprano and vivid characterizations out from under her oversized Marilyn Monroe wig.

The opera’s closing tableau found the humans standing resolute and the word HOPE projected across the set. Let’s hope things work out better for humanity than the message of a certain 2008 poster has so far.

The Artwork of the Future runs through Friday.

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