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July 2012 Archives

July 22, 2012

Andrew Simpson's Outcasts, an Opera

Fringe Festivals are typically over the top, bawdy, and raw--as in unfinished and more like a workshop than a polished production. On July 21, 2012, at the Mount Vernon United Methodist Church auditorium, the Dresser had the pleasure of seeing and hearing Andrew E. Simpson's "operatic entertainment" (as noted in the program handout) The Outcasts of Poker Flat, based loosely on a short story of the same name by Bret Harte. While not a full-blown stage production relative to instrumentation, sets, and lighting, Simpson's production (he is composer, librettist and music director) is mightily polished for a Capital Fringe Festival entry.Poker Flat CastCassie.jpg

Over the top as in exceeding normal bounds? Yes, this is what the operatic form aims for in terms of charged emotional stories and, in this case, Outcasts lets the melodramatic rule and that's not a negative. Bawdy, as in humorously coarse and vulgar? Short of nudity, Outcasts sports its share of swearing, drunkenness, and off-color humor.

The story involves a group of men and women kicked out of the town Poker Flats. The women--Cassie and Lorelei (Lori)--are whores. John Oakhurst is a gambler. Uncle Billy is a drunkard who makes the plight of the other three hopeless when he steals their horses and leaves them stranded as they wake to a major snowstorm. Just before Billy's thieving departure, the lives of the three remaining outcasts are forever altered by the appearance of a young couple on their way to get married in Poker Flats. The young man Tom has encountered Oakhurst before. Tom lost all his money to the gambler, but Oakhurst handed every cent back to the boy. Tom and his bride Piney insist that they will camp with the outcasts and then move on the next morning to Poker Flats. Oakhurst urges them to proceed to Poker Flats, but Tom and Piney have some food that they want to share. This is a story of sacrifice and redemption.

Andrew Simpson, who is a Catholic University of America professor heading the department of music theory and composition with an emphasis on stage music, practices what he teaches. His personal website lays out clearly that he is a "composer who explores how music interacts with other arts, in concert and on stage" and a "performer who specializes in silent film accompaniment and new chamber music." Simpson, as The Professor, arrived on stage first dressed in a bowler hat, white shirt, and dark trousers, looking very much the part of the piano player for a silent film.

The music for Outcasts is a stream of complex contemporary classical with accents of a folk sound intimating the pentatonic scales of Appalachian tunes. The opening number that included Cassie (soprano Rachel Evangeline Barham), Lori (mezzo-soprano Jessi Baden-Campbell), Oakhurst (baritone James Rogers), and Uncle Billy (base-baritone Mike Baden-Campbell) was an ambitious weave of four competing song lines in a mostly atonal mode. The number sets the bar high for the music that followed. Except for the closing duet, which ended abruptly and may be more a problem of stage and musical direction, the Dresser was impressed with what Simpson offered through his highly talented singers. PokerFlat Piney.jpgA particular favorite song was a duet between Tom (tenor Noah Mlotek) and Piney (soprano Deborah Sternberg) about songbirds and in the style of the Appalachian folk tune. Jessi Baden-Campbell stands out not only for her singing in pieces like "The Wings of a Dove," but also for her acting. The Dresser could easily see Baden-Campbell in the role of Polly Peachum in Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera. In fact, all three women in Outcasts gave admirable performances and Simpson seemed to feature them together and alone. This is a show worth hearing more than once.

In Adam Vines' poem "The Motel Room," the narrator's mother is depicted as an outsider who crosses the line of acceptable good girl behavior, but she is learning classical literature. The poem glances off the characters of The Outcasts of Poker Flat who huddle together in a rustic cabin telling each other stories as a snowstorm strands them. Tom tries to tell the group about the Iliad but falls flat, while Cassie ventures into a version of her life as she sings about the Golden Cock Saloon. Poem and opera alike constantly skirt questions of propriety and moral behavior.


My mother had taken off the shirt-waist dress
she had to wear to classes and slipped on bellbottoms
to walk from the Baptist college to town.
It could've been the ride he offered her to the drugstore

in his shark-finned '58 Impala. It could've been the date
he claimed to have later that night with a woman
whose black hair fell to her waist, or it could've been
the stiff cowboy hat she'd seen only on television.

It was the Fourth of July in Alabama, and most of the students
had gone home. It could've been because he didn't know
about Ovid's "Echo and Narcissus,"
or because he didn't go on his date with the racy woman;

it could've been because he waited instead on his porch
until after dark she passed again with a sailor.
It couldn't be because two days later he took her
with a six-pack to a motel room for their first date,

or because her stepmother sent her down from Chicago
to Birmingham for her step-grandparents' wedding anniversary,
or because, while there, she had secretly enrolled in college,
or because she had no one left but my father to please.

by Adam Vines
from The Coal Life

Copyright © 2012 Adam Vines

Photo credit: Allison Fuentes

July 27, 2012

Michael Oberhauser's Fallen Angels

What a pleasure to see young composers taking their operatic work to the stage as Michael Oberhauser has done in the Capital Fringe Festival. On July 26, 2012, the Dresser saw Oberhauser's Fallen Angels, three vignettes based on Biblical tales but updated to contemporary time. Oberhauser has brought together talented young singers and musicians in combination with minimal props to create an interesting 60-minute song-cycle production.FallenAngelsPR.jpg

The three sections--Lilith, Temptation, and The Name on the Door--use poems and Bible verses loosely threaded together with connecting text. MichaelOberhauser.jpgThe composer wrote the libretti for the first and third sections and Shannon Berry wrote the Temptation section. For the Dresser, the individual words of the text receded into the background in favor of hearing the music and seeing the singers act.

The Lilith story gave a modern telling of Adam and Eve being visited by Lilith who is angered to learn Adam has married Eve. This is a seduction story where Lilith tries to win Adam back. But not because Lilith loves Adam, it's more about her vanity and that Eve is a younger woman. Lilith also seduces Eve with a brownie because Adam has forbidden Eve to eat chocolate. It's a comic take on the snake offering Eve the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. The acting of singers Courtney Kalbacker (Lilith), Joseph Pleuss (Adam), and Shelby Claire (Eve) served the story well.

The Name on the Door story is about betrayal and abject vanity. Jezebel, played by Annie Gill, is a singer managed by Eli, played by Bennett Umhau. Jezebel loves Eli but he primps in front of her with a hand mirror. He is chasing a younger singer--Josephine, played by Zoe Kanter.

Both the Lilith and Name on the Door stories seemed similar in textual theme and musical selection, which was more dissonant than tonal. The Temptation section concerned an aging business executive who was looking forward to being reunited sexually with a younger male colleague. Sauvageau.pngThis part of the opera as sung by baritone Andrew Sauvageau as Stephen Carlisle, tenor Benjamin Taylor as Joshua Clark, and mezzo-soprano Francesca Aguado as Veronica James offered the most interesting music as these voices tonally complimented each other. Oberhauser's setting of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem "Break, Break, Break" was reminiscent of the John Adams setting of John Donne's poem "Batter My Heart, Three Person'd God" in Doctor Atomic. The emotional intensity that Sauvageau brought to this aria helped to cement the association with this prominent Adams' aria.

In Mark Smith-Soto's poem "Café of Mirrors," the narrator addresses the questions of beauty and vanity--his and that of strangers--in a generous playing field that allows for tenderness despite knowledge that tenderness may not be justifiable. The stories of Fallen Angels verge into the human condition that Smith-Soto describes with its comic and emotional energy.


Here it is again, one those moments
when human beings seem beautiful to me,
even their flaws touching, a mouth too large
on that woman, a bald spot on a boy

named Roberto, my perceiving renders
them tender, I know that they are not so,
but a knowledge within that knowledge
argues for them, gauzes each dot or blot

with a kind of love, and I myself am bettered
by this flare of neon from my head,
lighting the mirror so that I am flattered
into a grin, though I catch at the next table

a man just staring around, his goatee
diving off his chin into the rest of our lives.

by Mark Smith-Soto
from Our Lives Are Rivers

Copyright © 2003 Mark Smith-Soto

About July 2012

This page contains all entries posted to THE DRESSING in July 2012. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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