American Lyric Theater Alumni: Composers & Librettists In Concert
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American Lyric Theater Alumni: Composers & Librettists In Concert

National Sawdust

NEW YORK CITY HAS AN OPERA PROBLEM. Those of us who live here are lucky to have the world-class work done by the Met, but that house presents a limited number of new works, including nothing this season written after 1935, and no other smaller company really fills in the void. You can read, in the pages of OPERA NEWS, about the myriad new operas performed around the country, but they rarely make it to the country’s opera capital; sometimes you have to hop a bus to Philadelphia just to hear a work like Silent Night. That’s why this great concert on November 15, presented by American Lyric Theater (which mentors composers and librettists, including almost all of the ones heard here), was especially welcome—it offered New Yorkers the rare opportunity to hear excerpts of what audiences in Houston, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Saratoga Springs have already heard—fantastic opera written by living young composers!

The highlight was Jeremy Howard Beck’s The Long Walk (libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann), a harrowing work, based on an Iraq War veteran’s memoir, that had its premiere in 2015 at Opera Saratoga. Its musical intensity reflects its psychological anguish, to which baritone Scott Purcell was frighteningly committed. But it could also be steeped in despair, like an aria sung by mezzo Heather Johnson, “I used to think we’d travel to the ends of the earth”; its sweet melody glided over mashed dissonant chords as the piece transitioned emotionally into fury, with a woman at her breaking point. Johnson was effectively exasperated, and the performance was wrenching, especially in the intimate space that is National Sawdust.

My other favorite excerpts were from The Privacy Show, a work-in-progress by Kamala Sankaram (libretto by Rob Handel), which the composer described as “Edward Snowden meets Casablanca.” Telling a story about privacy in the Internet era, it combines digital and acoustic music to reflect the story’s clash of real and virtual lives. With beefy tone, tenor John McVeigh sang his part with a bit of a sneer, almost villainous in the way of the best lovable villains. The pieces on display were very promising—compelling drama, attractive music and a strikingly smart libretto. I’m excited to hear more, if ever offered the chance as a New Yorker!

Ricky Ian Gordon’s “27” (libretto by Royce Vavrek, about Gertrude Stein),heard in 2014 at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, had antsy music, not too dissonant but rhythmically and harmonically jagged. Soprano Cree Caricco created some nice effects in the love duet, “Look at me, Gertrude,” and she harmonized beautifully with Johnson, but the star of this section was bass-baritone Christopher Job, who blustered through Ernest Hemingway’s “Bullshit Aria,” in which he denounces Stein’s supposed “talents,” with the gruff masculinity you expect.

Caricco stole her excerpts from Gregory Spears’s O Columbia (libretto by Vavrek, about the space shuttle), which had its 2015 premiere at Houston Grand Opera. The music had a more mainstream, almost Broadwayish sound than the other works in the concert. Caricco sang her aria “Imagine” eagerly and earnestly, with aw-shucks, midcentury enthusiasm for space adventure, accompanied by wistfully sweet music. 

Christopher Cerrone’s Invisible Cities (libretto by Cerrone, a former OPERA NEWS intern, based on Italo Calvino’s novel) proved an impactful way to begin the afternoon. “Scene 2—Isadora—The City of Desire” opened with a muted piano—just two notes, back and forth—laid over with an almost droning, vaguely Middle Eastern melody, sung by McVeigh, that danced in, on, and around the chord; soprano Caroline Worra and mezzo Kim Sogioka joined in from the balcony with wordless melodies. It was dreamy and unsettling, but gently so—that is, it was softly troubling, which is more intense than something more brash.

The audience was already at least somewhat on edge; this was the Sunday afternoon two days after the attacks in Paris, and there was some feeling of significance to be sitting in a concert hall so soon after Bataclan. After Cerrone’s “Scene 2,” ALT founder and producing artistic director Lawrence Edelson quoted Leonard Bernstein’s words following the assassination of President Kennedy: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” The afternoon more than lived up to that promise. —Henry Stewart 


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