WNO Premiers Opera by Jeanine Tesori
On December 14, 2013, Washington National Opera premiered The Lion, The Unicorn, and Me by composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist J. D. McClatchy, WNO's first opera by a woman composer. This 90-minute family opera, commissioned by WNO's Artistic Director Francesca Zambello, is based on The Lion, The Unicorn and Me: The Donkey's Christmas Story by British novelist Jeanette Winterson. Zambello, who directed the production, also chose the book.
Set in two acts, the first half of the show introduces the Me of the title, a boy angel with a set of golden wings that he seems to have trouble adjusting. His first appearance situates him in the audience where he sings out either ordinary or extraordinary (the first half of the show had many unclear deliveries of text) and surprisingly conductor Kimberly Grigsby sings back to him. It's an endearing moment of operatic connection because so often, and pardon the Dresser's pun, the work the conductor does is so often unsung.
The story focuses on the angel picking the right animal to carry the Virgin Mary to Bethlehem just before the Christ Child is born and what happens shortly thereafter. It's a story of multiple miracles without glitz--donkey gets the job of carrying the boy's virgin mother to child's birthplace, holy child born in barn.
The best elements of Act I include the jazzed music that introduces the Chinese-style snake walked from the audience onto stage by the 16 children of the WNO Children's Chorus, the singing performance of bass Soloman Howard as Lion, and the singing/acting performance of John Orduña as donkey. Howard, who sang in Duffy's Cut, one the three short operas presented this fall in WNO's American Opera Initiative is a Domingo-Cafritz young singer to follow and he is scheduled to sing Sarastro in WNO's May production of The Magic Flute.
On the other side of the coin, the Dresser got pretty bored with Act I. It was difficult to understand the words and boy soprano Henry Wager as The Angel sang off key. Initially, the Dresser thought this was how the music was written since The Angel sings something about being off key, but this manner of singing continued into Act II.
At intermission, the Dresser spoke to several children of varying ages to see how they were enjoying the production and indeed there were. One 9-10 year-old had his mouth open in awe according to his mother. Two boys about 11-12 years old exclaimed that all the children on stage made the show super interesting to them and they particularly loved the unicorn's costume and should the Dresser say her hooves, especially the ones she stood on were a wonder since the platform was only under her toes and instep.
Musically, Act II grabbed the Dresser's attention, reminding her that some of the music in Act I also had catchy intricacies of syncopation and percussion. In particular, Act II's opening bazaar scene with the comic butchers (one of them played Soloman Howard) was percussively delicious as sounds of cleavers striking the chopping block added much energy. The delivery of the song about tax time by Chinese bass Wei Wu as the Innkeeper came across very clearly and showed off the clever text by Sandy McClatchy. Additionally two singers hidden inside large urns provided visual comic relief, as the urns were part of these singers' flexible costumes. The Dresser thinks these prop-costumes looked like something from Disney's film Fantasia, maybe the dance of the mushrooms.
In Graffiti Calculus, her book-length poem of which 47 is one piece, Mary-Sherman Willis explores the relationship between mother and rebellious son. This subpoem foretells the agony that the Virgin Mother Mary would all too soon experience and so the story of Jesus' birth is told and retold through texts like that created by Mary-Sherman Willis.
Taken from the life by his hand--clay-shaper; toolmaker; spear thrower.
............... His hands held dominion
over creatures. And her hand over him, she who had shaped him inside
............... her and torn him free of herself.
Then held him, run her thumb on the little teeth in his milk-mouth.
............... Then taken the food
from her mouth and fed his gawp. Then wiped him clean of his soil.
............... She'd caressed his down cheek,
as softly as she could with a hard palm. When her hand held his to make
............... him stand, he was still her creature.
No one else's. She knew this better than anyone, better even than
............... his father would know
who belonged to whom as long as there was life. By making her Boy
............... from her life, she left her print in him.
by Mary-Sherman Willis
from Graffiti Calculus
Copyright © 2013 Mary-Sherman Willis
Photo credit: Scott Suchman