On Site Opera’s clever “Coffee Cantata” provides modern shot of caffeine to Bach

Thu Feb 15, 2024 at 1:51 pm
Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Coffee Cantata” was performed by On Site Opera Wednesday night at The Lost Draft coffee bar.

It took some strong coffee to do it, but for a brief time in the mid-1730s, J.S. Bach changed from musical theologian to humorous observer of human nature.

The results were on show, in a cleverly updated version, at the Broome Street coffee bar The Lost Draft Wednesday night, as the roving company On Site Opera staged a delightful performance of Bach’s “Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht,” BWV 211—the Coffee Cantata—in a venue where the stimulating drink is brewed and sold.

The warmth and humane wit of J.S. Bach is no secret—it is woven through his works from the Brandenburg Concertos to the Goldberg Variations. But few would suspect him of having a rom-com sensibility, at least until they encounter this classic generation-gap tale of a headstrong daughter who ignores her father’s pleas to behave more respectably and give up her coffee habit.

One doesn’t doubt that the ancient Sumerians left stories like this on their clay tablets. Probably threats and punishments didn’t work with their kids either. But then Lieschen’s dad thinks of an incentive: it’s the promise of a husband—who is also a “stout-hearted lover,” in Picander’s original text—that changes her mind about coffee (sort of). She grandly swears off the drink, but while he goes in search of a suitable guy, she draws up a marriage contract that guarantees her right to have coffee whenever she wants.

Besides sly commentary on the coffee craze that was sweeping Europe in the 1730s, this encomium to the brown beverage probably served as a commercial for Zimmerman’s coffee house—a distant ancestor of The Lost Draft–where Bach conducted his crack student orchestra, the Collegium Musicum, in weekly concerts.

That popular Leipzig hangout likely had more room than the narrow shoebox of the SoHo establishment, with its bar along one wall, a single row of tables along the other, and a three-foot-wide aisle for the cast of three to narrate, argue, and sing in. Sarah Meyers’s resourceful staging took the performers behind, around, and on top of the bar, as well as among the coffee-sipping patrons. (A tasting of three exotic brews interrupted the cantata’s action with pauses to pour while the orchestra vamped and reprised, justifying the show’s title “The Immersive Coffee Cantata Experience.”)

A wide spot near the front door accommodated the four instrumentalists, all members of the American Modern Ensemble: guitarist Dan Lippel and cellist Valeriya Sholokova as the basso continuo, with violinist Nikita Yermack and flutist/recorder player John Romeri. In their sparkling renditions of Bach’s dancey music, there was nothing in music director Geoffrey McDonald’s reduced orchestration that felt thin or missing.

McDonald was also the author of the lively new English translation, which matched the contemporary look of Beth Goldenberg’s costumes. Well, mostly contemporary—Philip Kokorinos as father Schlendrian, whose name translates as “Old Stick-in-the-Mud,” looked appropriately retro in his baggy suit, overcoat, and fedora. He wore a put-upon expression to match as he sang “Raising daughters is no picnic” in his opening aria.

The performance began, as it no doubt did at Zimmermann’s long ago, with a summons to the coffee-swiggers to shut up and pay attention, trumpeted by tenor Bernard Holcomb as the Narrator (and, in this production, the Barista). Clear of voice and energetic of manner, Holcomb kept busy between narrations grinding, brewing, pouring and serving—and also introducing each coffee tasting with a flowery description of the brew in recitative. (The translated text was available to follow on one’s cellphone, but hardly needed, given the singers’ proximity and excellent diction.)

Kokorinos embodied Schlendrian in a lived-in basso, with affection for his daughter lurking under his exasperation.

Soprano Christine Lyons looked every inch the teenage fashionista in pink and silver, but there was nothing immature about her well-supported voice as she sparred with her dad and longed for love. Her priceless bits of business included sending her father on his husband quest carrying her laptop logged into a dating site, and lustily vamping the glass coffee maker as the Barista poured the steaming water from on high and aromatic vapors filled the room. Could a husband, however robust, compete with that?

We will never know, as we still await “Coffee Cantata II: The Dregs.” There was however, a splendid final trio for the cast, celebrating the passing of lust for coffee from grandmother to mother to daughter, and adding, in a McDonald interpolation, “More meaning we will not extract./The rest was only metaphor/For what, we are not too sure.”

But there was nothing unassured about the three singers’ brightly caffeinated rendition of Bach’s vigorous counterpoint, bringing the performance in at a thoroughly entertaining 45 minutes.

Enthusiastic applause followed with bows for the singers, the players, the director, the translator/arranger, and the real-life baristas of The Lost Draft, who didn’t just pantomime the brew but made it and brought it steaming to the customers.

“The Immersive Coffee Cantata Experience” runs through Feb. 25. The run is sold out, but a waiting list is available. osopera.org

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