No matter what the economic wonks say about how the United States economy is improving, the abysmal financial situation in the arts is everywhere apparent. Take for example New York City Opera's 2011 VOX Contemporary American Opera Lab, a one-of-a-kind showcase since 1999 that purportedly shows the "preview [of] the future of opera."
THE 2011 VOX SHOWCASE
Here is the 2011 VOX list alphabet by title, followed by the composer's name and the librettist's name if a second person was involved:
All Three Acts of a Sad Play Performed Entirely in Bed, Dag Gabrielsen & Julie Larios
The Beach, Andrew Gerle & Royce Vavrek
Blood Rose, Hannah Lash
De Deo, Paola Prestini & Donna Di Novelli
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, Huang Ruo & Candace Chong
Faustine, Arlene Sierra & Lucy Thurber
Maren of Vardo, Jeff Myers & Royce Vavrek
Mary Shelley, Allan Jaffe & Deborah Atherton
Three Weeks, Yoav Gal & Reuven Namdar
Vinkensport, David Little & Royce Vavrek
A quick survey of bios of the composers and librettists selected for the 2011 VOX reveals that every opera showcased had at least one creator who is a New Yorker. Of the ten operas showcased from an applicant pool of 70 entries, only one this year had a single creator who wrote both music and text (Blood Rose by Hannah Lash). Of the 17 creators involved, five had work performed in earlier VOX programs (Yoav Gal, David Little, Donna Di Novelli , Paola Prestini, Royce Vavrek) and one librettist of the 17 contributed to three of the ten operas (Royce Vavrek was librettist for David Little's Vinkensport, Andrew Gerle's The Beach, and Jeff Myers' Maren of Vardo). While VOX has a history of supporting creators by bringing them back on stage with new works or second looks at works still in development, one still has to raise the question was this 2011 selection, which focused on New York-based artists, a cost-cutting measure? a conservative approach to ensure a certain audience turnout? a reliance on the established new opera network to cut down on NYC Opera staff time? It's hard to say, but the fact that two selections (Faustine by composer Arlene Sierra and librettist Lucy Thurber and De Deo by composer Paola Prestini and librettist Donna Di Novelli) were developed specifically for this VOX showcase as opposed to being competitively vetted makes one think that NYC Opera was circling its wagons to ward off certain financial risks.
This year VOX program charged entrance fees for their programs (understandable in this economic climate), and presented the ten works at two different venues. Venue number one at $25 per seat was the familiar-to-VOXgoers Skirball Center at Washington Square that accommodates an audience of 860. It was not a filled house though tickets sales said it should have been. Venue number two at $15 plus an additional food/drink minimum cost was the new-to-VOXgoers "flexible event space" called Le Poisson Rouge. LPR, a nightclub serving a light food and drink menu, allows an audience of 250 fully seated, 700 fully standing, or some combination of the two. As revealed in a public question and answer period May 14, the six opera excerpts presented at Skirball, most of which used full orchestras, cost NYC Opera much more than the four excerpts debuted at LPR, which employed small concert ensembles. How much more?—definitely twice as much but the speculation was 3-4 times more in cost for the hall rental, musicians, singers, technicians, publicity, printed handouts, etc.
How successful was the Bleecker Street nightclub over the traditional auditorium provided at Skirball Center? This reviewer thinks it depends on how serious an operagoer one is. Despite the fact that the VOX in-crowd had taken over most of the tables, reserving chairs for their friends, this reviewer managed to get a prime table and chair in front of the stage. If that had not happened and this reviewer had been left standing, it is unlikely there would be much of review of the four works presented at LPR. While reserved press seats are unnecessary at Skirball, that was not the case at LPR. It is hard to understand why VOX staff failed to reserve seats for the press at venue number 2. The pressing question is how many audience members at Le Poisson Rouge were 35 or younger? Certainly part of the allure for this venue was to bring in a younger crowd.
Of the ten operas presented in excerpted form (except All Three Acts of a Sad Play Performed Entirely in Bed and Blood Rose which were played in their entirety), this reviewer would like to see the following completed and fully produced: De Deo, Mary Shelley, and Three Weeks.
De Deo has an economically written libretto whose story is about a young Brooklyn man transported back in time through a medieval mechanism called the wheel. It should appeal to a young, hip audience. Paola Prestini who greatly impressed the 2010 VOX audience has created a pleasing blend of tonal music that has elements of rap, Middle Eastern inflection, and electronic sounds.
Mary Shelley features a beautifully rendered poetic libretto that makes the fictitious monster Frankenstein a stalker of his author Mary Shelley, who has real life problems with her husband, poet Percy Shelley and his friend Lord Byron. Allan Jaffe's music is rhythmically engaging and there are occasional jazzy touches.
Three Weeks, which has a libretto written in Latin and Aramaic, is musically the most innovative offering of the ten VOX pieces. Three trombones, a bass, piano, and percussion made up the ensemble. The vocal sound including one character who uses a voice modulator (think Laurie Anderson) creates an edgy contrast to the brass heavy musical accompaniment. Occasionally the music seemed to veer toward a big band sound but then modulated to something so offbeat one wonders what planet these characters inhabit. The story deals with events surrounding the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem circa 70 AD.
NOT AGAIN, THANK YOU
Three pieces did not please this reviewer: The Beach, Blood Rose, and Faustine.
The Beach is a story about a younger woman who marries an older man whose mental capacity has declined. She stations him in their laundry room so she can have an affair with a more vital man. The repetitious libretto and the musical treatment did not engage this reviewer.
Blood Rose was more interesting in theory than in practical execution. Beauty and the Beast converse in a reversal of gender sounds. Beauty is a mezzo and Beast is a counter tenor. The music is atonal with unending words drawn out in melismatic treatment. Compounding the unpleasant soundscape was that the emotional pitch of the conversation had no arc and therefore everything sung came across at the same imperative level.
Faustine, a story about a woman who sells her soul to the devil to regain her youthful sexuality, failed to draw this listener in. The music was atonal and the libretto was awkward. For example, "You are more than your body./Your brain is what counts./Your thoughts swim like fishes./They splash joyfully through the waves./Your thoughts are like fishes."
Though the following four operas did not sit at the top of this reviewer's list, each had merit and would benefit from further development or a more complete production than what was offered at VOX.
All Three Acts of a Sad Play Performed Entirely in Bed revolves around a couple and their sexual relationship. The libretto is spare with vocalizations and minimal text. The music is tonal, playful, and often lilting. As a complete 10-minute pocket opera, it left the listener thinking something more was needed.
Composer Huang Ruo scored Dr. Sun Yat-Sen with western instruments for the VOX presentation of the first act. This version left this listener wondering what his scoring for Chinese instruments sounded like since the VOX presentation for full orchestra had some exotic touches. The libretto, sung in Cantonese, concerns the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen. This is a grand opera commissioned by the Opera Hong Kong. It will enjoy its world premier in Beijing in the fall of 2011.
Maren of Vardo concerns a child who gets tangled up with Satan. The music is quite pleasant but seemed somehow familiar (maybe a bit Sondheimish), particularly in the opening lines by the child Maren. The ensemble featured a base clarinet, clarinet, cello, base, two violins, and piano which added to the overall pleasing richness of the music. The libretto seemed overwritten. Lines like "It pains me to see you with tear-stained cheeks" distracted this reviewer.
Vinkensport is a comic piece about a finch-singing contest. The opera was commissioned by Dawn Upshaw for the Bard Conservatory. The music is a patchwork quilt of sacred, barbershop, off-key "Chopsticks," and a dash of Wagner's opera Die Meistersinger. The libretto is witty and silly showing the best of Royce Vavrek's skills.
In looking over this reviewer's list of favorites, it seems the pieces with scaled down instrumentation dominated. At Le Poisson Rouge, all four operas presented there used a minimal number of instruments. At Skirball, every piece except Mary Shelley used a full orchestra. Could this be a trend for what VOX shows in the future? What is imperative is that operagoers support New York City Opera. Without NYC Opera, there is no showcase for new opera. And the financial news about New York City Opera is worse than what was felt by the scaled back VOX presentations, NYC Opera has announced that it is leaving Lincoln Center because of the high cost to be there.
Photos - Jill Steinberg