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In Review > North America

Dog Days

LA Opera

Some operas are almost impossible to love and yet we sense that their presence in the repertoire is essential to the currency and relevance of the art. David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s Dog Days may be just one of those. This cataclysmically grim work, which received its West Coast premiere under the auspices of the LA Opera Off-Grand series, touches upon the most desolate stratum of American life. It is terrain already memorably explored by John Steinbeck, Sam Shepard and Stephen King, but this story of a family wringing out an increasingly degraded existence is intensified by being set in a post-apocalyptic America. While the universal (though unspecified) catastrophe has already happened, we witness a replay of the event in the collapse of the family, from living fragile remnants of an orderly life to the extremes of blood lust and cannibalism. 

This dismally shocking action (staged at REDCAT Disney Hall and seen June 12) did not repulse its audience. On the contrary, Little’s score, played by the instrumental ensemble Newspeak, covered a surprisingly varied range. At the start, it was light, mingling acerbic Stravinskian (dis)harmonies with the more familiar idiom of Broadway, but as the decline of the family, and of civilization itself, set in, the baleful sounds of tubular brass became dominant, to be replaced at the end with a sustained electronic chord that increased to an intensity that threatened one’s eardrums. This chord comprised the final ten minutes of the opera, as the daughter washed the naked corpse of her mother, while her father and brothers staggered on stage covered in blood, having just slain and eaten a dog-man that has haunted the action. Oddly enough, operatic grandeur was not absent. Characters sang arias; one could even catch in them fleeting moments of nobility, always latent in the operatic voice. However, the voices were miked, with the intent to deprive them of individuality, so these moments were fleeting indeed.

The performance was saved from pure sensationalism not only by the inventive score but by the production, directed by Robert Woodruff, who has often visited this domain of spiritual darkness in the spoken theatre. His staging was unrelentingly graphic, with a directness that is familiar from In yer face” theater, but infrequently encountered in opera. James Bobick, who sang the role of the Father with manic intensity, presented a disturbing study of the easily-crossed borderline between patriarchalism and vituperative madness, while his two sons Pat and Elliot, played by Peter Tantsits and Michael Marotte, were monstrosities of craven subservience mixed with barely contained urges of corrupted sexuality. 

But the emotional heart of the opera was with the women. Lauren Worsham invested the waif-like thirteen-year-old daughter Lisa with the capacity to feel profoundly and care for even the least deserving of creatures. Her immense sympathy for the dog-man, Prince, played by the performance artist John Kelly, who hangs around the margins of the stage, threw the perversity of the male characters into even darker shadows, while the aria she sang to her reflection in the mirror, in which she imagines her starved body to be beautiful, provided a high point of dramatic pathos. Marnie Breckenridge sang with equal plangency as the Mother. Her death was experienced as a moment of genuine relief. As Lisa left the squalor of her degenerate home during that final ear-splitting chord, one could only hope that whatever emotional coherence she had would carry her through the terrible world that awaited her outside.

Dog Days may be an important work. We must hope that we never experience such horrors in our own lives, but it is a function of art to give us some idea of how we might respond if we encounter them. —Simon Williams

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