Opera in a Pocket
Pocket opera? Scaled down opera--light on duration, singers, musical instruments, set, and props.
On October 1, 2010, the Dresser saw at Washington, DC's Source Theater what the InSeries called "Pocket Opera on 14th Street": Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti and William Bolcom's Casino Paradise with libretto by Arnold Weinstein.
It's interesting how titles set up expectations--"Pocket Opera on 14th Street"--little operas in an urban space. Yes, the Source Theatre is clearly an urban space and the works were short in duration and other aspects.
Also the composers' names evoke certain expectations. Yes, Trouble in Tahiti (premiered in 1952) is listed, along with Candide (1956) and A Quiet Place (1963), as opera but one thinks of Bernstein's musical West Side Story (1957) as his most prominent piece for theater. Quite frankly, Trouble in Tahiti sits in that gray area between opera and musical, something the Dresser wearing another hat has looked at with deep interest. On the other hand, what the Dresser expected from Casino Paradise (premiered in 1990) was more along the innovative musical lines of A View from the Bridge, a full-scale opera by the same creative team of Bolcom and Weinstein. In fact, Casino Paradise, called by Bolcom a musical theater opera, is a musical with rather unremarkable music.
Nonetheless, these two musical plays seem to work side by side. Both deal with failing family communication. In Trouble in Tahiti, the strife between a 1950s couple named Sam (baritone Will Heim) and Dinah (mezzo-soprano Grace Gori) is offset by a jazzy trio that stands in for a Greek chorus in exactly the way one would imagine nosey neighbors of that era would behave. The chorus, acted and sung with remarkable flair by tenor Brendan Sliger, mezzo-soprano Tara McCredie, and tenor Jase Parker, provides a kind of upbeat Father Knows Best psychobabble.
Too much money seems to be at the heart of Sam and Grace's problems in Trouble in Tahiti. Sam is angry that Grace is spending too much seeing a shrink. She tells the shrink her dreams about not being able to escape a garden overgrown with weeds. Grace is angry with Sam because she thinks he is playing around with his secretary and he puts his competitive sports participation above their son's school activities. In the end, neither parent attends the son's school event. Sam goes to a handball tournament that he wins. Grace goes to see a grade B musical called Trouble in Tahiti. When the unhappy pair rushes home, he suggests that they go see Trouble in Tahiti and she says OK without telling him she just saw it. It's a sad story with no hope for resolution, but Director Nick Olcott created a satisfying production that was complete with authentic 1950s furniture and costumes.
Although the full version of Casino Paradise calls for thirteen singers and seven instrumentalists and the cabaret version suggests three or four singers with two keyboard players, Director Olcott opted for nine singers and a pianist. The story features a shady tycoon named JJ Fergeson (bass baritone Scott Sedar), his rebellious son Stanley (Jase Parker) and his got-to-have-a-man-at-any-price daughter Cis (Tara McCredie). The tycoon makes himself known to the local mom-and-pop business owners in some unnamed beached town between Galveston, Texas and Atlantic City, New Jersey. Over his son's protestations, JJ says he is going to make everyone rich with a new casino but none of this comes to fruition because JJ has a stroke and some unknown nurse (Grace Gori) seems to have taken over his affairs.
Casino Paradise seems particularly current given recent news that the casino business in Las Vegas and Reno has taken a deep plunge. While the Dresser generally admired the libretto for Casino Paradise, she thinks that in the end the libretto coupled with the unsurprising music neither inspired the director nor the performers. Jas Parker as Stanley gave a strong opening performance of "A Great Man's Child" but then his energy petered out. It seemed he had no other strong performer to play off of.
In Henry Israeli's poem "The Close of the Silver Age," an ambitious man not unlike Sam and Grace, or JJ, Stanley, and Cis, struggles to overcome his plight. However Israeli seems to indicate in the title of the poem with the phrase "Silver Age," as opposed to "Golden Age," that there is something second rate or ordinary about this man's decline. In the two pocket operas, we have neither kings nor queens.
THE CLOSE OF THE SILVER AGE
In the aftermath of his father's dementia
came the daughter, the rebirth. In the aftermath
of the rebirth came his wife's affair. In the aftermath
of the affair came the separation.
In the aftermath of the separation came
the reconstructed self--but he's getting ahead
of himself now, isn't he? He fears growing old,
how the embroidered wildflowers of overlapping
dendrites could entangle the whole garden.
The garden? He's confusing things again.
The garden has always existed "elsewhere"--
wasn't that the point of the expulsion?
Or was it the explosion? He throws another
volume into the fireplace. Whoosh goes
a decade in a diamond flash, in a clash
of babble, syllabic cacophony.
by Henry Israeli
From Praying to the Black Cat
Copyright © 2010 Henry Israeli