What an opening for an opera! After a low tremolo on the bass and some nice string section writing as violins, viola, and cello join in, suddenly on stage appears a bearded, para-military dude, as unlikely an operatic “hero” as one could imagine. You could picture him rolling into DC like thunder astride a thousand pounds of hot metal.
Composer Peter Hilliard and librettist Matt Boresi seemed to be on the right track, following an impulse that many artists have imagined recently – how to give voice to the many who have felt marginalized and unheard in our society. (I am speaking about many in the White working and middle class, particularly in the inland swathe of our country called “Middle America.”) Their newly minted opera, The Last American Hammer, commissioned and produced by UrbanArias to open their season, has been much anticipated, and I went fully expecting to unfurl and wave the flag for this new opera.
There are some super moments. Timothy Mix is one of the bright lights. With a robust voice and an equally strong physical instrument, he moves between the braggadocio required of his hepped-up angry character, who demands to have his say and be heard, followed by the unmasking of a frightened, lost soul. With his slow, blinking eyes and the tendency to abruptly clutch his baseball cap, he seems to shrink in size before our eyes. He’s the kid you know who was always assigned to the “grow row” at the back of the class.
In what I would call the title and best tune of the show, he lays out beautifully a rueful reminiscence of America’s by-gone world, a place where factories and pride in work went hand-in-hand to create practical implements and our great industrial complex – all mythologized in the symbol of the hickory-handled, beautifully balanced, strong and mighty hammer. The tune is memorable, and he is terrific in letting us into the character’s emotional truth.
The tone of Last American Hammer seemed to keep changing which put me at sea regarding the creators’ intentions. For instance, I could not follow the comedic writing, which abounded in the opera, such as the treatment of Milcom, the hammer-revering central character. The comedy didn’t undercut the premise of “giving the other side a fair hearing” by making him out to be a buffoon too early on. Dumbness, after all, is a charge that rallies certain on the far left but rightfully further rankles those in the opposite camp.
The character that comes across (perhaps not surprisingly) with the greatest dignity and believability is DeeDee Reyes, the FBI agent who just wants to do her job, without escalating the violence, and get home. Sung beautifully by Briana Elyse Hunter, the singer-actor embodies a flesh-and-blood person. When she sings “You will not be on T.V.; you will not be a martyr,” we believe this woman is prepared to deal with whatever comes at her and is not going to let kooks grab the headlines. In her climactic “You won’t be sent to Valhalla, not by me” we get some of the best song writing and singing in the show.
Hunter gifts us another fine moment of the evening, singing “I try not to assume,” a terrific number, which makes us challenge our cultural, political, racial and regional assumptions head on. This piece alone could serve as a town hall discussion focus.
The Last American Hammer
closes September 29, 2018
Details and tickets
The person least served by the opera is soprano Elizabeth Futral. I have been moved to tears in several different operatic works by this nimble singer-actress and gifted world-class soprano. She seemed off-balance opening night, both physically and vocally. She was often outgunned by the other two singers, and even the orchestra muffled her singing in her middle range.
But there were underlying issues to what seemed to be her discomfort, starting with the libretto. Matt Boresi has obviously not read the memo from the Librettists’ central office, handed down from Mozart to Sondheim: “Less is more.” There were simply too many words, and, especially for Futral’s character, not necessarily singable ones. The musical writing by Peter Hilliard for Futral was punishing, pushing long lines of recit in her middle range that did not allow the singer’s voice to rest and soar adequately. The upshot was that we ached with and for her quavering soprano wobble and awkward vowel-consonant combinations that tripped her up with glottal stops and occasionally making her voice cut out altogether.
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I’m not even sure about the character written for her. Futral seemed to be have conceived her character, Tink, in the genre of Marian the Librarian, but we longed for some kind of revelation, a flinging off of the proverbial glasses and a freeing of her spirit. When the revelation came, in a curious plot point, it had neither been prepared for nor did it add up convincingly to matter. Futral seemed to continue tottering about the little museum with its precious collection of Toby mugs as an eccentric caricature rather than a full embodiment.
Futral sings about her character Tink’s love for “delicate things” and her longing for “something to gingerly hold.” Her elegiac wistfulness was in touching counterpoint to Milcom’s rampaging rage against “the man.” Both characters were looking backwards to a world that was no longer. I wanted so to root for Tink, but more often I was scared that Futral was going to trip in her bright red sandals and crash into her collection.
The humor writing wears thin. How much mileage can you get out of “sauerkraut balls?” Again, it was hard to know if the text was intended to make fun of or give credence to the ways of Middle America, as there were too often poor jabs at small town Ohio manners.
I wanted to understand and really step into the shoes of someone living in constant paranoia against government, internationalism, and refugees, and to sympathize with the plight of the working man. The writers and Timothy Mix almost got me there. But I think the show backed off too quickly from the underlying seriousness of the charges.
By the time we get to operatic trio writing, I am lost in the layering of images (not to mention that “honeysuckle” and “methlabs” are not easy words to sing.) Lists are mostly to be avoided is another one of the warnings delivered to librettists and lyricists, but in this opera, shortly after the list containing “methlabs,” poor Miss Futral must sing a whole aria listing different Toby jugs, including the prized but completely unsingable Sir Oswyn Codpox.
Other details are questionable, even in the staging. The Toby Jug collection of this quaint museum of “delicate things” includes several carefully protected in a glass-fronted high cupboard, but many more are literally scattered around on rickety tables. This includes the most precious historic one of all, perched precariously on the ricketiest table of all, which plays a prominent part in the climactic scene in the show. The placement defies even basic theatrical logic.
A new work is inevitably a risk, and these experiments are worth taking. UrbanArias has and will do better.
The Last American Hammer. Music by Peter Hilliard. Libretto by Matt Boresi. Conducted by Robert Wood. Stage Direction and Set Design by Grant Preisser. Featuring Timothy Mix, Elizabeth Futron and Briana Elyse Hunter . Lighting Design by Abby Hoke-Brady. Costume design by Grace Santamaria. Produced by UrbanArias. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.