Where would it be possible to get a concentrated tutorial and experience new opera in all its possible forms from traditional full scale opera with orchestra, chorus, and individual operatic singers to music theater which mixes Broadway with opera to experimental where singing is only vocalized, texts are spoken and video projections are integral to the performance? That would be New York City Opera's VOX Contemporary American Opera Lab produced free of charge to the public once a year in a two-day forum. There's nothing like it any place in the world and given the financial situation of performing arts organizations and the recent problems New York City Opera has faced with renovating their theater and recently hiring an artistic director, opera fans are very lucky to see this valuable program of opera excerpts continue.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF VOX
VOX's Opera Lab has produced eleven programs annually beginning in 1999 (except for 2005). In these programs, VOX has showcased over 100 new operas including more than 40 that have enjoyed full productions. Among those operas are Mark Adamo's Little Women (VOX 1999, NYC Opera 2003) and Lysistrata or the Nude Goddess (VOX 2001, Houston Grand Opera 2005), Scott Wheeler's Democracy (VOX 2000, Washington National Opera 2005), Charles Wourinen's Haroun and the Sea of Stories (VOX 2000, NYC Opera 2000), Deborah Drattell's Nicholas and Alexandra (VOX 2000, Los Angeles Opera 2003), Bright Sheng's Madame Mao (VOX 2002, Santa Fe Opera 2003), Richard Danielpour's Margaret Garner (VOX 2004, Michigan Opera Theatre 2005), and Elmer Gantry (VOX 2007, Nashville Opera 2007). In 2011, New York City Opera will produce the world premieres of John Zorn's La Machine de l'être (VOX 2007) and Stephen Schwartz's Séance on a Wet Afternoon (VOX 2009).
THE 2010 SHOWCASE
George Steel (General Director and Artistic Director) and Beth Morrison (VOX producer) have done an outstanding job with this year's selections and introduction of the creating artists. The 2010 program included ten selections:
Aquanetta by composer Michael Gordon & librettist Deborah Artman
Dog Days by composer David T. Little & librettist Royce Vavrek
Evangeline Revisited by composer Julian Wachner & librettist Alexis Nouss
Inventory by composer Brian Current & librettist Anton Piatigorsky
Oceanic Verses by composer-librettist Paola Prestini
With Blood, With Ink by composer Daniel Crozier & librettist Peter M. Krask
Revolution of Forms by composers Anthony Davis and Dafnis Prieto & librettists Alma Guillermoprieto and Charles Koppelman
Song from the Uproar by composer-librettist Missy Mazzoli
A Star across the Ocean by composer-librettist Scott Davenport Richards
With Blood, With Ink by composer Daniel Crozier & librettist Peter M. Krask
Zolle by composer-librettist Du Yun
Eight of the 2010 selection were brand new to VOX. The other two appeared as VOX Second Look entries: With Blood, With Ink (VOX 2000) and Aquanetta, which had a premiere with Oper Aachen (Germany, 2005).
AT THE TOP OF THE LIST
The operas that interested this writer the most were: Evangeline Revisited; A Star across the Ocean; With Blood, With Ink; and Zolle. Each of these works is very different one from the other and no one of these stands out as the single favorite above all the others. However, Evangeline Revisited; With Blood, With Ink; and Zolle all involve Julian Wachner. As stated, he is the composer of Evangeline Revisited and the conductor of With Blood, With Ink and Zolle. What he has to say about conducting these two works and the energy it took to do so (these pieces were performed back-to-back) is worth reading at newmusicbox.org.
Evangeline Revisited is what Wachner calls an oratorio opera. The music is fluid and lyrical and the orchestration is sophisticated. The poet Longfellow is a character in this opera and is cast as a countertenor giving the author of the long poem "Evangeline" a rarefied sound. Occasionally, the music also alludes to plainchant and other old music influences.
Story-wise, With Blood, With Ink is a wrenching narrative about a Mexican nun, poet, and champion of women's rights who is forced by the Inquisition to give up her writing. The music is a blend of women's voices, tempo changes, and rich slow tones.
Zolle was the most experimental work in the showcase. Mezzo Hai-Ting Chinn vocalized. No words sung. Chinn has a facility for making every part she sings fascinating. Hila Plitmann as the narrator delivered the text which was a woman who is nearly dead imagining coming back to her village and bringing along with her family the basic things the village relatives need but instead she accompanies her father and son and just brings back an urn. Is this her dead husband in the urn? We don't know. The piece comes off like a 21st century Beijing Opera.
A Star Across the Ocean is music theater. To this writer's ear, the music is 21st century Porgy & Bess meets Singing in the Rain. The libretto is engaging and well written. The music heard has expert transitions. Scott Davenport Richards made an impression on this writer at VOX 2008 with his jazzed Charlie Crosses the Nation.
BOTTOM OF THE LIST
The piece this writer liked least was Aquanetta. At first the number called "I am your beautiful monster" is engaging but it repeats so many times that it was boring. The subject of the opera involves Aquanetta, a model turned B movie horror star. This writer likes camp but not mind-numbing repetition.
WHAT THE VOX AUDIENCE STOOD UP FOR
The VOX audience rose to their feet only once and that was for Oceanic Verses, an opera that pays tribute to Italian folk music across time and geography. While this writer enjoyed the romantic folk element of Paola Prestini's music, there was a basic distrust that Prestini went significantly beyond the folk music that inspired Oceanic Verses. Perhaps this reaction will change over time as this writer becomes more familiar with Prestini's music. Certainly her music is being sought by such prominent groups as Kronos Quartet and she has accrued many honors.
UNDER THE SKIN & OUT OF THE ORDINARY
Song from the Uproar has an electronic underpinning that gets under the skin but it's done within the framework of a traditional orchestral sound. The excerpt presented a keening soprano as appropriate to the story that deals with the main character's sudden loss of her family. Missy Mazzoli is another composer whose work has been commissioned by the Kronos Quartet and should be watched and listened to with interest.
Dog Days, Inventory, and Revolution of Forms all experiment with subject matter. Dog Days concerns an end-of-the-world scenario where an American family deals with a man in a dog suit. David T. Little says this piece is a blend of "opera, musical theatre and rock-infused concert music." While the story is tragic, it is also comically absurd. This writer particularly liked the role created for Lisa, the family's little girl and her portrayal by soprano Lauren Worsham. Little's Soldier Songs was a hit of the 2008 VOX.
Shoes are the subject matter of Inventory. This is the proverbial case of a composer being willing to set the data in a telephone book. In the case of Inventory, the text includes such text as "silver slingbacks with slip-resistant soles." Brian Current's music is lively and somewhat frantic in this piece. This writer thought it was fun as long as the listener could hear it in small doses.
Revolution of Forms is about an art school partially built but never completed on the grounds of the Havana Country Club. The art school is a stand-in for the Cuban people under the dictatorial rule of Fidel Castro. This opera, written in Spanish, has four collaborating artists two of whom were associated with the art school (Dafnis Prieto and Alma Guillermoprieto). Anthony Davis and Dafnis Prieto's music is rhythmically rich and demanding.
If this writer were given the opportunity to see any of these opera in a full production, she would not hesitate to go. Even Aquanetta, the opera she liked least has redeeming qualities. This says a lot for this year's selections. So hats off to George Steel and Beth Morrison for this engaging showcase of new operas.
Photos - Carol Rosegg, Courtesy of New York City Opera