One doesn’t go to Urban Arias expecting masterpieces. The whole adventure is about sharing in Founder and Artistic Director Robert Wood’s risk-taking in mounting new or almost new operatic works.
The shows selected are always smart and (blessedly) short. The production values are always good, as they are here in Shining Brow. There are high-caliber singers, and the instrumentalists and conducting are outstanding.
Wood has been working with the Inscape Chamber Orchestra (ICO) since 2014, and so it is de facto Urban Arias’ in-house orchestra. The trust these players have with Wood makes for exceptional clarity and listening pleasure. There are seven players for this opera, all members of the ICO, with some instrumentalists doubling. Together they dazzled me, carrying me through this dense and complicated score.
Shining Brow focuses on the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the larger-than-life egomaniacal, narcissistic, arrogant personality, who feels he is not bound by rules that other people must follow and indeed seems without any moral compass or personal sense of integrity. The resemblance to anyone living is purely coincidental.
Composer Daron Aric Hagen has given us some beautiful music: watery lyrical passages, chorus songs of syncopated rhythms, and curious litanies, but it’s challenging not only for the singers but at times the listeners. It is not the only thing complicated in this latest offering by Urban Arias.
Pulitzer Prize Winning Irish Poet Paul Muldoon is the librettist and the text is positively James-Joycean! Four pages of glossary terms are provided in the program, including allusions to classical Greek characters, medieval chivalry and the Arthurian legend, German opera and lieder, Irish and Italian geography, Moby Dick, Edgar Allen Poe and other nineteenth-century poets, and a list of many North American native tribes.
I don’t hold with the theory that second-rate writers make for better libretti. Muldoon is a celebrated rock star of poetry, and his words leap out at you in gorgeous sparkling flecks, like shiny trout from fast churning water. But, in this case, too many images, too many words, too many darn leaping trout. I can’t catch them all, and it’s frustrating.
The opera is best when the work breathes, a simple line of words and melody all coming together, as in the gorgeous “There is no balm in Gilead…which to anoint my shining brow.”
For much of the rest, audiences will appreciate this work to the degree they can keep up with the two creators’ very keen minds and their thrill of impressing others by their ability to borrow or purloin with alacrity.
Here are some other key things audience members will need to know:
The piece is a chamber version of a much larger work. Time and characters are conflated to signify Frank Lloyd Wright’s memory as he sorts through his ruptured relationships. The cuts create some abrupt jumps, then chorus bits have been reinstated from a shorter version (the conductor liked the music) but now sung by the major characters. All this piles up the confusion.
The central dramatic situation is historically accurate if so sensational it seems plucked from some tawdry melodrama. Mr. Wright left his wife Catherine and took up with a married woman, Mamah. The relationship rocked the mid-western world of his time. He built Taliesin as their temple of love. (The word refers to the famous 6th century Welsh poet and means “Shining Brow.”) Mamah and her children were brutally murdered and the house burned to the ground in a horrific case involving an unbalanced chef who hacked them to death as they tried to escape the flames before swallowing acid himself – mercifully all this is not seen on stage. The loss all but shatters Wright’s zealous personal faith in himself and his “manifest destiny.” (Not in life apparently for Wright continues unredeemed, but it makes for better opera.)
That the creators assume the audience brings this background knowledge to the opera is a problem.
A key figure in Wright’s life and the opera is another great American architect, Louis Sullivan, who had once been Wright’s mentor, his “Lieber Meister.” At one point in the production, the director has the two men embrace in what can only be described as a 19th century homo-erotic kiss. It is both shocking as it comes out of nowhere and, to my mind, one of the most clear and clearly passionate moments on stage.
The singers tackle the music with ferocious intensity, and several give memorable character performances. I especially liked the sultry Mirian Khalil as Mamah Cheney and the mezzo-soprano Rebecca Ringle as Wright’s wife Catherine. Khalil showed a remarkable ability to modulate the soprano lines, and her soft vocalizes especially delighted me, while Ringle made all the difficult passages seem character-based as she attacked the space between her and Mamah, puncturing the air with sound. The way these two women circled each other, sizing each other up, Khalil as a Cheshire cat who got the cream and Ringle growing ever more angular and dried-up from jealousy and bitterness.
Robert Baker plays Sullivan and finds a rich palette of colors to play Wright’s foil: mentor, friend, judge, nemesis. Baker starts the show delivering the obligatory “poetry of architecture” and Wright’s “form following function.” But it was when he launched into the personal realm that the singer moved me with what can only be described as a tenor’s mounting angst: “ I was his lieber Meister; he was a pencil in my hand.” He introduces us to the theme of the disparity between those who rule (Wright) and those relegated to serve others’ interests. He also gives another key image, repeated throughout, wringing out his admission about Wright’s betrayal, “He pierced my heart.”
The other two characters are less clearly drawn for me. Ben Wager as Edwin Cheney, the cuckolded husband, is less a full-blooded character than a kind of German Expressionistic ghost who floats in and out of the action with whitened face and deep shadows painted under his eyes, But Wager is the one who starts us off in a litany passed around the cast with the powerful line, “The truth is my mouth is full of nails.” “Nails” becomes “stones,” “steel,” and “mud” in the mouths of the others whose dreams get crushed.
More troubling is Sidney Outlaw as Frank Lloyd Wright. At times the singer seemed — well, enigmatic. It hardly seems what is called for in the role. I am in awe of the technical coordination it takes to sing opera, let alone such a difficult score, but opening night Outlaw also seemed somewhat in awe of the technical challenges.
He is most successful in the sweet passages. An early aria, “Her scent was it musk?” moves surely through the melody while the flute and strings softly wander up and down notes entwining then passing each other. I believe his love in that moment, “Mamah has pierced my heart like an arrowhead.” In Wright’s final aria, Outlaw is most affecting.
There were some troubling physical habits and vocal tensions in the cast perhaps due to nerves that stood in the way of my giving myself over to the work. The habit most egregious in the small house of Atlas’ Sprenger Theater where we were only sitting a few feet away from the action, was how often the singers, especially Outlaw, looked up the overly-steep angle to the monitors to get his musical cues. The emotional moments and connections to the relationships were therefore broken time and again. I would hope Wood could fix the problem by placing either himself as conductor or the monitor at a helpful, more forgiving place. Otherwise, just give us concert opera!
The balance between orchestra and singers is always tricky. While I loved the Frank Lloyd Wright sliding window panels designed by director and set designer Grant Preisser that served also as a screen to separate the action and keep the orchestra upstage, it did nothing to keep the presence of the admirable musicians nor help the singers feel connected to the conductor in a way that would have been more acceptable in the space.
The opera soars when, in the tradition of many great operas, in song the idea of the purgatory of our minds opens up. I’m thinking this work needs multiple viewings and hearings.
Shining Brow. Music by Daron Hagen. Libretto by Paul Muldoon. Conducted by Robert Wood. Stage Direction, Set and Costume Design by Grant Preisser. Lighting Design by Lucrecia Briceno. With Robert Baker, Miriam Khalil, Sidney Outlaw, Rebecca Ringle, and Ben Wager. Produced by Urban Arias. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith