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The Scarlet Ibis
NEW YORK CITY
Hai-Ting Chinn, Josh Rice and Eric F. Avery in Mallory Catlett's production of Stefan Weisman and David Cote’s The Scarlet Ibis at the Prototype Festival
© Cory Weaver 2015
Eric S. Brenner and Josh Rice
© Cory Weaver 2015
Now in its third season, Prototype Festival, co-produced by HERE and Beth Morrison Projects, has become a major leader in opera theater for the twenty-first century. The 2015 festival opened on January 11 with Stefan Weisman and David Cote’s The Scarlet Ibis in a moving production directed by Mallory Catlett.
The Scarlet Ibis, the 1960 short story by James Hurst (1922–2013) that inspired this opera, is a pithy, profound coming of age story that haunts the reader long after its shocking end. Cote’s libretto delves into the layers of Hurst’s prose and brings to the surface themes of identity, personal expression and Otherness only hinted at in the story. Hurst’s story concentrates on the journey of its narrator, but Cote’s drama explores the parallel journeys of Hurst’s narrator, called Brother, and Doodle, the narrator’s sickly, younger sibling. Brother tries to turn Doodle into the ideal younger brother by teaching him to walk, run and swim. The sensitive, poetic Doodle struggles to overcome his physical handicaps to conform to Brother’s idea of normality, but eventually owns his Otherness after a strange, prophetic visit from a scarlet ibis.
Weisman’s score amplifies the brothers’ differences by assigning them distinct musical identities. Brother is a pants role, in the tradition of Cherubino and Octavian. Like his operatic predecessors, Brother occupies a liminal space in life and is pulled from naiveté to awareness. His music is energetic and active. He never pauses for introspection in the form of an aria and interrupts solemn and reflective moments with jokes and insults. As Brother, mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn shaped her voice into a bright youthfulness, flashing glints of steely maturity during the most dramatic moments.
Doodle is written for a countertenor, which magnifies the character’s “Otherness.” Weisman sets Doodle apart from Brother and the rest of the characters with long, plaintive melodies, as in the dreamy “Peacock Aria,” in which Weisman and Cote give voice to Doodle’s musical and poetic inner life. In Catlett’s production, Doodle is a puppet operated by three handlers costumed in period as if to show the audience that Doodle is both child and man, past and future. Countertenor Eric Brenner, a tall, barrel-chested man, voiced Doodle’s duality with a burnished, celestial treble.
When a scarlet ibis lands and dies in the family’s backyard, Doodle’s transformation begins. He recognizes himself in the tropical bird that has flown far from its home and wonders what wonderful things it may have seen. Later, in the swamp with Brother, Doodle stands up for himself for the first time and his music takes on new strength.
The final scene is Weisman and Cote’s most beautiful departure from Hurst’s story. The brothers race home in a storm. Doodle is left behind and runs after Brother. For the first time, Doodle’s music pulses and moves. He soars into the air and then comes crashing down lifeless, like the scarlet ibis. The haunting final tableau is Brother gazing at Doodle’s body. The look of recognition on Chinn’s face made for a chilling, silent finale.
As Mother and Father, Keith Phares and Abigail Fischer sang with a fullness and clarity that one often yearns for in singers of contemporary music. Nicole Mitchell sang the role of the superstitious, kind-hearted Auntie with a warm and authoritative contralto.
Conducting the American Modern Ensemble, the indispensable Steven Osgood led the impassioned, heartbreaking performance with his signature calm command.
STEVEN JUDE TIETJEN
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