Breathless comedy reigns in a quartet of new works from Experiments in Opera 

Fri Jun 28, 2024 at 1:42 pm
Alize Francheska Rozsnyai and Melissa Bonnetti in Rathattan Thursday night at Experiments in Opera. Photo: Hunter Canning

Opera’a enduring popularity can be positive and negative. The good part is that audiences can enjoy opera performances on stages around the world. The bad part is that the standard narrative form of opera has become a captive to its success—so locked in that the idea of “new opera” is often misleading. Many of these works follow a linear, Verdian model no matter how contemporary the dramatic subject may be.

In this gap between newly made operas and new ideas are groups like Experiments in Opera, a small collective experiments with opera. For over a decade, through workshops, commissions, and collaborations, it has been prodding at the edges of operatic possibilities with an irreverence born of an appreciation for the form and an innovative restlessness about where it may (or may not) be going.

Thursday night at HERE, they opened their latest production titled “Five Ways to Die,” with four miniature operas (all single scenes) from different composers and creative teams, performed in the group’s Writers’ Room. Sopranos Alize Francheska Rozsnyai and Rose Hegele, mezzo-sopranos Melisa Bonetti Luna and Lisa Neher, tenor Kannan Vasudevan, and baritone Seth Gilman rotated through the characters—unfortunately, without roles being identified in the program.

The evening was heavily on the comic and subversive side. There was as much humor as the titles imply: Serial Killers and the CityMischief (or Rathattan)Water Prayer, and Valhalla Valley Mall

The other commonality is that these were very writerly operas, with a clear emphasis on text over music. This seems to have been a product of the Writers’ Room process, which emphasized ongoing collaboration between composers and librettist from germination to the last double-bar.

These comedies had inventive, satirical stories. Composer Del’Shawn Taylor and librettist Joanie Brittingham turned the standard brunch scene from Sex in the City into Serial Killers in the City. Mischief (or Rathattan), composed by Jesse Galaznik and written by Britt Hewitt, had rats from various parks in New York City plotting revenge on humans. And Valhalla Valley Mall, composed and written by Jason Cady, was the story of a young women finding a mystical utopia in an abandoned mall.

Lisa Neher and Rose Hegele in Valhalla Valley Mall. Photo: Hunter Canning

The outlier was Water Prayer, composed by Seong Ae Kim with a libretto from Marcella Murray. This was an unusual drama, with Water (Hegele) as a god-like main character, enjoying prayers from those who worship her while also facing a woman who curses her for the damage she does. While it felt like crucial context was missing, this had the most musical variety of any of the works, with a lyrical sound coming from the rock band type quintet—conducted confidently by Dmitriy Glivinskiy—and a variety of moods. The gentle pace and graceful shape allowed Neher to open up and shine. 

The comedy of the other operas was entirely verbal, packed with dialogues and monologues, with few opportunities for the singers to carry longer phrases. The best balance was in Mischief with a classic opera structure of recitatives between the characters of President Prosciutto of Battery Park (Luna), her assistant Mozzarella (Hegele), General Lamb Shank (Gilma), and the French rat scientist Champ de Mars (Rozsnyai), using brief solos for each to debate implying a virus from the sewers to eliminate humanity. The straight-faced calmness of the music and story telling put the enchanting sardonic attitude in high relief.

Serial Killers and Valhalla were denser, almost screwball style with a fast pace and puns and verbal interplay of the former. There was real wit in the texts and the energy in each was high, not just in the singers—especially Rozsnyai in Valhalla which was close to a monodrama—but from the quintet; the overall flavor of the music was rock opera, and the instrumentalists were especially sharp in these. The serial killers ordered Bloody Marys and lettuce wedges and talked about their stylish murders; the young woman in the mall, seeking relief from the responsibilities after her mother’s death, finds a consumerist nirvana.

These ideas were not just ultra-contemporary but meaty, and the vignettes entertaining. But they were also a little exhausting and could have used moments of musical space and contrast to balance the ear and concentration. This was particular true for Valhalla, where the libretto compulsively rhymed everything and used a parsimonious set of musical ideas to drive the point home. All the singers showed great stamina, especially Rozsnyai, but everyone could have used a breath, including the audience.

”Five Ways to Die” runs through June 30.

Leave a Comment


 Subscribe via RSS