UrbanArias pulls off a seemingly impossible task with Independence Eve by Sidney Marquez Boquiren and Daniel Neer, a chamber opera of three scenes with two singers, which deals with race relations in the US from the recent past to the near future all within 70 minutes.
The three micro-operas span a century, the common denominator is baseball, two singers play all six characters, and sing this relatively atonal piece almost non-stop. And yet! It’s magical…from the balanced, versatile five-piece orchestra to the simple, evocative set, to the accomplished actor-singers, the piece is thoughtful, tender and infinitely musical.
Daniel Neer, the librettist, concentrates on the relationships, not the politics, per se, and Marquez Boquiren’s score supports those emotional twists and turns. It is not a polemic as much as a tribute to the journey we are on together comparing our American passion for baseball and quest for social/racial justice. The music is very challenging and yet Jorell Williams and Brandon Snook, two talented artists, sing with such articulation, fluidity and expressiveness that one can comprehend every word – which is vital when the score is more set-speech then set-arias.
“Seventh Inning Stretch” starts with a black hotel porter eating his lunch (Jorell Williams)listening to a baseball game on his transistor radio and a cop on his beat (Brandon Snook) striking up a conversation about baseball. It is July 3, 1963, a month after President Kennedy introduces his Civil Rights Act legislation. Louis, the porter, is friendly, respectful and deferential to the white cop who remains standing and guarded. Louis is the first to open up with his lovely aria which starts with “I was just a little boy” about when he first played baseball and revealing his first brush with harsh racial discrimination. The music grows more dissonant after Louis reveals to the cop, without knowing it, that their lives intersect at a very uncomfortable place. Snook evokes the confusion, anger and restraint through his lovely, full and expressive tenor. Williams’ strong baritone opens to the warmth of his life story.
“Full Count” is set in 2013 – the summer the #BlackLivesMatter movement began after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Two lifelong friends, Sean and Joe, with very parallel lives in class, education, careers, family and love of baseball, are meeting in a nearby park after work. But Sean wants to talk about an encounter with the police that has left him shaken. Joe wants to go to a baseball game. The score seesaws back and forth between the lyrical recitative about their shared youth and agitated, contrapuntal underscoring when they argue about the police encounter. Jorell Williams is convincing as an articulate man of integrity in distress and sings with passion, clarity and emotional expressiveness. And, he can blast out a F-bomb on pitch! Snook does a wonderful job of exploring his warm and uplifting voice through the twist s and turns of the music. That is until the end ….
Shaun Patrick Tubbs, the director, has created a tense, compelling final duet: two friends sitting on the ends of the bench, each turned slightly away from each other, both pouring out their hurt and accusing each other of not “getting it,” and the orchestra expressing their longing to be loved.
“Benched” is set in 2063, also the eve of another July 3 baseball game. The characters are 10-year-old boys trying to make friends. This time the white boy is disadvantaged and the black kid is privileged and thriving. They sing about their worries about the national exams that determine their future and the “chip” they get embedded in their skin for national ID purposes, but their race doesn’t come up. It’s as if the struggle with race is over, but inequality remains. Philip, the Anglo-Caucasian boy, sings a beautiful aria about “When I was a baby…” about how when he was just a baby, his deaf mother would lie him on her chest to “hear” his breathing and smell his skin. Snook’s voice was at its most expressive and lyrical in this scene. Jorell and Snook share a stirring duet which starts “When you are 10”… everything changes.
closes June 11, 2017
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The production is elegant and the staging is excellent. For instance, the actors stand opposite each other in their own spotlight at the beginning and end of each scene punctuating their emotional journey. Tubbs has helped his singers embody simple physicalizations that evoke the age, class and disposition of each character. The cop strolls and cranes his neck; the porter is stiff with standing and hauling all morning long. The investment bankers stride about: Joe has a natural relaxed vigor that suggests fun-loving and careless. Sean is more constrained in his movements from his inner turmoil. Loose-limbed, floppiness captures the 10 year old boys.
One of my favorite moments was walking into the theater to discover a floating “display-box” set surfaced with turf and clay of a baseball park and a bench slightly off center with an old, gnarled half-dead tree with some new green growth upstage left. Off each end of the platform is a place for the quick costume changes visible to all. The orchestra stretches across most of the upstage area framing the scene for the audience. A brilliant touch was the video projections of baseball game being played on the surface of the platform stage drawing our attention away from the singers changing costumes on stage right and left.
Since the costume changes are onstage, Kristina Martin, the costume designer, has kept it simple and effective by switching jackets, hats and props to let us know who these men are in each scene. The futuristic back packs are especially adorable.
Robert Wood conducted his orchestra with vigor and authority. His enthusiasm, fluid movements and expressive baton added to the entire mis en scene. He created a very balanced sound design. The music surrounded the audience and never sparred with the singers.
Independence Eve A World Premiere Chamber Opera in Three Scenes. Music by Sidney Marquez Boquiren. Libretto by Daniel Neer . Directed by Shaun Patrick Tubbs. Featuring: Jorell Williams Brandon D. Snook. Conductor: Robert Wood. Costume design: Kristina Martin. Lighting design: Alberto Segarra. Scenic and Projection Design: Steven C. Kemp. Stage manager: Kristy Matero Produced by UrbanArias. Reviewed by Gillian Drake.