Where do angels fall from? At the Capital Fringe Festival, the answer is from the Mount Vernon United Methodist Church, where three chamber operas composed by Michael Oberhauser offer a defense in the case against fallen angels.
The point of his chamber opera cycle, Oberhauser writes in the program, is to “show how people in present day, when placed in similar situations, might do similar things”. Here the line between good and evil is blurred, as the audience is asked: Would you, when faced with such temptation, act in the very same manner that the “villains” from literature and history did? Put yourself in their wings for a moment and see. Wiggle around a little bit.
Consider Lilith (Courtney Kalback) for example, who enters the first opera Lilith lamenting that her lover Adam (Joseph Pleuss) has been wrongfully stolen from her. Moments later we see the object of her desire wrapped happily in a sheet of taupe blankets with his “new rose” Eve (Shelby Claire). The piano keys jingle. “Who is that knocking?” Eve asks naively, not aware it is Lilith, who enters the room moments later. The two women eye each other awkwardly. Lilith snidely tells Eve she “must be the maid”. To answer, Eve shows off her ring, making things even more awkward.
Eventually, Lilith manages to drag Eve down with her, and together they fall out of favor with Adam. Lilith plans her revenge by persuading Eve to eat “forbidden” chocolate. After eating the chocolate, Eve becomes bold and rebellious, proclaiming to Adam she doesn’t feel like “cooking him dinner”. Lilith has dragged Eve down with her, but, who can blame her? She was only trying to reclaim what was rightfully hers.
As Lilith, Kalback’s voice is exquisitely beautiful, contrasting her sly demeanor. Pleuss’ voice is firm and his dialect rings with clarity. As Eve, Claire sings in a refined tone which compliments her diminutive figure.
Oberhauser uses comedy here to explore his theme of the “moral grey area”. For instance, the substitution of the “forbidden apple” for a “forbidden brownie” Lilith offers Eve provides comic relief which is virtually nonexistent for the remainder of the operatic cycle.
Darkness again, the piano changes to a lower key, leading us down a “darker road”, into Temptation, where a forbidden kiss between Joshua (Benjamin Taylor) and Stephen (Andrew Sauvageau) comes back to haunt them four years later.
Now Stephen is in a high-rise office building, but has not forgotten the kiss he and Joshua shared. An unexpected visit from Joshua renews Stephen’s feelings as he confesses, “I have never forgotten about you”. They enjoy the view of the city, falling into memory of that day when “tragedy turned to joy”. Stephen offers Joshua his love again. The violins pluck, filling the silence as the audience awaits Joshua’s answer.
In“Break, Break, Break”, Sauvageau delivers a beautiful solo after Joshua has left him. Now alone on stage, he falls to the floor, clutching an empty whiskey glass tragically. Savageau sings this part in deep, rich tone that beautifully expresses the tragedy his is feeling. It is truly one of the finest moments in the cycle.
Entering the last of the chamber operas, The Name on the Door, red lights flood the stage as red and black lingerie are draped over the furniture. The theme, much like the first opera, is stolen love.
Jezebel (Annie Gill), awaits her beloved, Eli (Bennett Umhau) who she worships. Yet when he enters, he distant, aloof, and not at all flattered by Jezebels compliment of his “lilac lips” and “marble legs”. This is because of Josephine (Zoe Kanter), who is young performer caught his fancy. Eli informs Jezebel she is almost 40, and she should have expected to be replaced sooner or later by a younger star. After kissing her on the cheek, Eli leaves Jezebel is left onstage alone.
In the final piece, Jezebel mourns that there is no “fountain of youth” for her to drink from. With a renewed confidence, she realizes her career is still ahead of her, and resolves, “if I must fall, I will be the brightest star to fall!” Gill sings these last lines in a glorious tone, prompting the audience to erupt in applause.
Each of the chamber operas are 15 minutes in length, and not only well structured, but beautifully told through Oberhauser’s music. Oberhauser’s librettos are composed from poetry, including the works of Emily Dickinson, John Freeman and Alfred Lord Tennyson. His score enhances the beauty already existing in their poetry and achieves perfect harmony.
The five member orchestra sits onstage flawlessly executing Oberhauser’s operas. Oberhauser himself conducts, and the audience is treated to watching him as well as the orchestra perform during the operas.
Beauty, joy and harmony are not typically words associated with fallen angels. However, in Oberhauser’s chamber operas, the concept of fallen is presented in a sympathetic light, and the audience is asked to question whether decisions made by villains are truly wicked. Whatever the answer is, one thing is for certain: falling has truly never sounded more beautiful.
Fallen Angels has 5 performances, ending July 28, 2012 at Mountain at Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church 900 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC.
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Stephanie rates this 4 out of 5.