Contemporary opera is supposed to be a rare and endangered species. Robert Wood, Artistic Director of UrbanArias, says otherwise and believes fervently that it’s a cause worth pursuing. His second season is proving that opera properly seeded and nurtured can thrive. His recipe for his developing company is “Opera. Short. New.”
Best of all, his commitment to work with living composers and librettists brings these artists into the theatre space, listening for and seeing what works in the hearts and minds of the audience members surrounding them. This is a treasure for artists and audiences alike.
Another ingredient essential for producing new opera might be listed as perseverance. Composer Thomas Pasatieri, whose work is featured in the second season of UrbanArias this spring, has a story about delivering his “baby” that bears such drama and pathos that it’s an opera itself.
Before Breakfast was conceived for the great mid-twentieth century opera singer Beverly Sills in the late seventies. In moving it from page to stage, events multiplied to confound its production, including the just-completed score being unknowingly thrown in the trash forcing a rewrite for the entire work from memory, then surely more heartbreak when Sills postponed its opening, and another postponement when she retired from full-time singing. It was finally produced at New York City Opera, but that production sounds like it may have suffered some trauma from a difficult birth. However, operas can rise again like the phoenix bird, and at Urban Arias, Before Breakfast takes flight.
Based on a work of the same name by Eugene O’Neill, it fits in beautifully with the season’s O’Neill festival in Washington. I do wish this opera might have received some shared-stage programming from the city’s big theaters currently producing the playwright. Before Breakfast deserves to be seen and has much to contribute to any discussion of O’Neill’s legacy and how his works fare in other media. The story’s challenging trajectory is most suitable to opera where music can support the occasional out-scale emotions of O’Neill, which in another medium might drown in its own melodrama.
Before Breakfast is a taut psychological portrait of a woman who had her one chance in life in a depression-era dance marathon, until it was snatched away by her collapsing partner after she had dragged him around the floor for 500 hours. She went on to marry another man who had stood by and watched both her stamina and failure in the marathon, but he could not stand by her in marriage, not through the loss of their stillborn child, nor through harsh economic times, but instead spiraled into an alcoholic’s long hard dying of body and soul. She carried him around seemingly through the years, much like her marathon dance partner until, finding a love letter in her husband’s coat pocket, her emotional dam bursts. In the opera, we become privy to the unraveling of her dreams and her emotionally turbulent inner life.
This is diva stuff. Caroline Worra inhabits the role in a one-woman tour de force, and she pulls out all the stops, from her mad rocking and crooning to a doll to her climactic final entrance with blood stained hands. This impressive singer carries us through every musical and emotional pitch, riveting us with her absolute authority.
The sophisticated way that the music and libretto work side by side, but not totally synchronously, in a curious dialogue, made the opera feel surprisingly fresh, despite the somewhat clunky prose. I liked especially the use of space and silence in the orchestration when the singer would initiate a musical line, thread us in a new direction, and then the orchestra would follow in response, sometimes an instrument at a time.
Conductor Robert Wood so sensitively supported Worra that the work at times seemed like a living, breathing interplay. I am aware how hard this is to achieve seamlessly with the necessity of a pick-up orchestra. The challenge is that in this score, perhaps even more than others, the thirteen musicians need to really listen to the performer. Wood understands this, and bassist Barbara Fitzgerald and Tess Hartle on piano modeled this exceptionally well in the intentionality of their playing. Occasionally, in this performance the technical difficulties of the space muffled and disturbed the balance.
Director Alan Paul filled out this monodrama-in-music, creating a world and stage business for the character of Charlotte, which gave the work full dimensionality. I might have wished that the choreography could have matched the music. I never quite believed that this was a woman who lived on and for the dance floor.
On the other hand, the choreography in the second half of the evening rivaled any other aspect of The Filthy Habit. This was music-theatre realized in an entirely different genre than Pasatieri’s work, getting its impulse and framework from popular tunes and characterizations that were more Broadway than highbrow. Based on a little intermezzo about a woman smoker and her disapproving husband, the libretto was devised as an updated response to Bloomberg’s recent smoking ban in Manhattan.
Composer Peter Hilliard (composer) and Matt Boresi (book and lyrics) specialize in the high antics of comic musicals and self-referential works that give little nods to other musicals and the world of Broadway. The Filthy Habit is a clever riff on that genre.
Lights up and we find ourselves in a trendy ‘scape’ of a couple of New York’s professional class. Set and lighting designer David Arsenault bumped everything up beautifully, carrying us in tone and mood from Charlotte’s depressed and dingy world of the 20th century to the au courant living room of Gil (Ethan Watermeier) and Susan (Jennifer Aymer.) Buddhist art and tranquil minimalism belie the constant pace and high anxiety of husband and wife team.
Husband Gil is a health nut and fitness freak. Played by Watermeier, he is an energizer bunny who may have overdone his edaname intake he is so lively. Upon entering, he dashes around to hug the potted palm and touch the Buddha. He exhibits all the bravura and high-powered energy of a Broadway performer, as he sings a paean to his “clean living.” You can’t help but love the guy loving himself.
Aylmer as Susan is a fearless performer and excels in not only tricky contemporary scores but in new “crossover” works where stage directors demand seamless acting and dancing as well as vocal virtuosity and flexibility. In The Filthy Habit, she not only sings arias while smoking a cigarette on stage but, while prone, makes passive smoking something ticklishly, even deliciously, erotic. It’s a scene burned forever into memory.
Dancer Dustin Kimball almost steals the show with Aylmer in Gil’s nightmare sequence where Kimball keeps reappearing in new guises, performing different dance styles to seduce Susan. From a tee shirted “jet” out of Bernstein’s West Side Story, to a French apache dancer dragging his lover across the floor, Kimball even returns as a Marlboro-packing cowboy lifted right out of Oklahoma! and kicking “Yee ha!” Choreographer Lucy Bowen McCauley deserves the applause with Kimball, who knows how to help a wife get “the little ahahahaha…[something] a woman needs.” The final dream seduction really “smokes!”
Monica Soto-Gil, Peter Burroughs, and James Rogers set the period and tone of the piece right from their opening number, “Thanks to Bloomberg’s smoking ban” and keep the show popping with tight harmonies and well-synchronized choreography. The trio overcame the black velour backdrop that threatened to swallow up their energy initially and grew stronger as the show went on.
There’s nothing deep here, but it sure is fun to see just how crazily neurotic we’ve all become. Go and enjoy the singing. There is smoking outside following the show.
Booze and Cigarettes is running in repertory with Positions 1956.
There are 3 performances remaining for Booze and Cigarettes: Wed, Apr 18 and Friday, Apr 20 at 8pm and Sunday, Apr 22 at 2pm. All performances are in the Black Box Theatre at Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd,Arlington, VA (near the Rosslyn metro.)
Details and tickets
Booze and Cigarettes: A Double-Bill
Music by Thomas Pasatieri
Lyrics by Frank Corsaro
Based on Eugene O’Neill’s Before Breakfast
The Filthy Habit
Music by Peter Hilliard
Libretto by Matt Boresi
Based on Il Segreto di Susanna by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari and Enrico Golisciani
Musical Direction by Robert Wood
Stage Direction by Alan Paul
Produced by UrbanArias
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: 90 minutes with a fifteen-minute intermission