Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative, now in its seventh season, annually holds a mini-festival and commissions a composer-librettist team to create an hour-long opera and raise up American unsung voices and stories. Nothing – short of reopening the government – could be more timely.
Despite the almost universal cry currently from the lips of Washingtonians who ask for cultural fare that will help them hear and perhaps understand some authentic if unfamiliar (and at times unfathomable) voices from beyond the beltway, most programming, let’s be honest, is preaching to the choir.
Enter composer Kamala Sankaram and librettist Jerre Dye who have delivered up a story about Pentecostals in the Appalachian South and – stranger still to most of our metropolitan dwellers – snake handlers. They have done this creating a chamber opera as strong and inventive musically as it is emotionally compelling.
I found Taking Up Serpents so haunting that I returned to experience it a second time. To my mind this work surpasses all the one-hour operas that have been introduced through this program, and many have been strong indeed.
Sankaram is definitely an artist who is making her work known, having received for this Commissioning Grant from Opera America’s Grants for Female Composers. Dye and she have teamed up together twice before. Such is their ease with and trust of each other, their work reminds me of a classic ballet ‘star partnership.’ Dye has the muscular strength in his writing, clarity in his technique, and the geometric precision of his structure to “lift” Sankaram, his “prima ballerina” of a composer, to write music that soars aloft.
Longer than an hour but still considerably under two-hours, the work compresses artfully universal themes of redemption, cross-generational conflict, and gender role norms. The characters share the sometime banality of contemporary small town life, but underneath lie universal longings for spiritual ecstasy and deep connection.
Tiny lights flicker in a vast night sky as a fragment of music starts. A flute flutters, an arpeggio sounds on the piano, and a tremolo on strings seems like the singing of insects. Then a young woman, Kayla, in an oversized t-shirt and cropped leggings, opens her mouth to sing of moths and light and – suddenly, if strangely – we are transported to Kayla’s inner world of poetry and big dreams. Opera can do that beautifully.
Much of the action of this short opera happens at night. A.J. Guban’s evocative lighting invites us to wander in this metaphysical universe. Kayla ponders about the moths’ longing and asks why they are pulled towards the glow. Soprano Alexandria Shiner sings a high ribbon of sound – and it feels less an aria than fragments of thought following thought. A glimpse into the mysteries of nature leads her character to seek a religious connection as she continues, “This ain’t no way to be set free/ The light is all they see, Lord…Maybe they’re just born that way/To want the thing that’s out of reach.”
Director Alison Moritz promptly fills in a contemporary reality and grounds the piece with a newly written scene. With the barest of elements – a couple of shopping-baskets and carts that evoke checkout counters at a Save Mart – she conveys a familiar landscape. A girl on a break is smoking a cigarette. A young man is taking inventory. When the girl on break opens her mouth to interrupt Kayla’s religious musings, she sings in a twangy sound something startlingly like speech.
We think we’re not in “opera land” anymore. But the work, as much of opera being written today, challenges that very notion. Isn’t opera about many forms of music, words, drama, and visual aspects of theatre coming together? Taking Up Serpents is an opera of metaphor, and, like the moths introduced in the first minutes, progresses in fluttering fragments, musically. The text too is evocative rather than explicit.
Librettist Dye avoids the trap of conversational language found in many contemporary operas, what some people have called the “pass the salt” operas. Instead, he lets the storytelling move forward through the inner, often very poetic and passionate language of the characters.
Taking Up Serpents
closed January 13, 2019
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We learn almost immediately Kayla has something inside that has a troubling hold on her. As we follow her story, she is not the only one consumed with troubling demons. A phone call drives Kayla back to her hometown where she learns her father, a Pentecostal preacher, has been bitten by a “timber rattler.”
The opera becomes a memory piece, criss-crossing back and forth in time. Kayla’s memories inform and fuel her confrontation with her family and in particular her father.
A night bus ride carries her and some other shadowy characters on a journey that feels epic, even mythical. One ride carries people who are running away from their personal small town hells. The scene that carries Kayla back home is repeated with beautiful symmetry – musically also with its compelling but darkly insistent, Appalachian-infused “shape note” ensemble singing. There are many universal aspects of the story but perhaps most importantly is the theme of a young person returning to reconcile with the past.
Though we follow Kayla’s story, the character who, to my mind, is most richly imagined (and realized) is her father. There are elegant parallelisms between the two characters. They are searchers, initially both outliers. The metaphor of light attracting delicate moths (for Kayla) becomes, for Daddy, an attraction to the explosive, violent light of fireworks. In a short gold-nugget of a scene, we witness a man in despair and desperate, recklessly lighting then throwing firecrackers into the night sky while daring God to show himself.
The character-as-written lends itself to huge emotional shifts. (This is true operatic stuff.) If to have text, music and voice come together in such oneness may be thought of as a parallel to a religious experience, then a sublime moment musically in this opera is when Daddy sings, “I stand before you a broken man… a useless man…Save me, Jesus, from ma’self.” Right then he is struck by the luminous experience of conversion.
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In this moment, Dye-Sankaram succeeded in helping me understand and appreciate the Pentecostal experience. Later in the opera, the story reveals the ‘flip’ side of a believer – one who has traded doubt and humility towards the Mystery to absolute and rigid adherence to his faith. In one of the most powerful if troubling scenes of the opera, the father takes his daughter out to hunt for snakes. The more the girl shows her fear, the more the mask of “normalcy” slips to reveal the dangerous power of patriarchy that has historically used religion to bludgeon women into submission, citing the Biblical story of Eve’s trespassing and collusion with the serpent as proof.
It took courage and keen religio-plus-psychological insights on the part of the creators to include both of these “truths.”
Timothy J. Bruno, who plays this patriarch, has contributed strongly to programs throughout his career at the WNO, first as a member of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program (2015-2018) and then most recently this Fall as the French General in Silent Night, but never have I seen him excel so as an actor of such depth and nuance. He completely inhabits this complex and troubling man, making sympathetic (at times) someone of crippling fear, great anger, religious ecstasy, and patriarchal self-righteousness. If one can say this about an opera singer without reproach, at times I forgot completely Bruno was singing I was so transported by the journey of his character’s arc.
Alexandra Shiner is fiercely courageous in the role of Kayla and has a powerful voice to deliver the big musical moments. Sankaram has written her part in a classically operatic style. It fits the story of a young woman who carries such big dreams that don’t seem to fit in with the world around her. Time and again we learn she is left alone, abandoned, because her belief system, her questioning, and even her sound seems strangely out of sync with the world around her. Her role feels more acted upon than active, nonetheless Kayla at the end comes into her own (female) power.
Eliza Bonet, as Kayla’s Mother, showed richly dark colors in her voice and used her every moment to great dramatic effect. She delivers most sympathetically her understanding of a woman in a traditional marriage caught between allegiance to her husband and her restless, critical daughter. In another fragment, Bonet appears upstage in a white shift, her hair flowing and talking in tongues. The aria acts as a classic vocalise, yet her physical and vocal and physical commitment is so believable to be “ecstatic” dramatic truth. Her own role in the climax of this opera is a stroke of brilliant dramatic writing and emotionally harrowing in Bonet’s performance.
Musically, Sankaram writes with great finesse for these three, very different voices. It was thrilling to hear her risk-taking in including a whole range of music styles including nods to bluegrass, jazz, and experimental music. Singing styles included some decidedly un-operatic techniques, including Appalachian “shape note” and “praise” singing. Singers Hannah Haggerty, Marlen Nahhas and Arnold Livingston Geis are to be praised for their vocal flexibility and their fearlessness in following the composer’s foray into the vibrato-less world and even to the vocalizes of “singing” in tongues.
Sankaram knows how to move a solo vocal line into an ensemble piece and use the words to create both coherency and ambiguity – a mark of great operatic writing. As Shiner sings, “Take my soul anywhere from here,” the Pentecostal choir sings, “Take my soul!” This makes for a great quintet with different rhythms playing against each other, augmenting the tension between characters.
Sankaram also has integrated some curious contemporary instrumentation for a small orchestra, including electric and acoustic guitar, a drum set, water phone, and, most delicious of all, “whirly tubes” with their mysterious sound and snakelike waving. Lidiya Yankovskaya does a terrific job as a conductor of this score bringing out the many colors and styles of music with her thirteen musicians who prove game to the challenge.
The work for a first showing seems most whole, but there might be a couple of moments to expand in the future for clarity. For one, Daddy’s moment of conversion happens in the blink of an eye. Was it the musical writing or the staging that seemed too blindingly fast?
The last scene was meant to leave us with questions, but the staged images against the complex ensemble music felt crowded and confusing, even anticlimactic.
The opera leaves us with questions of ambiguity. Its beauty and emotional power continues to haunt.
Taking up Serpents ran for two performances, closing January 13, 2019.
Taking Up Serpents. Music by Kamala Sankaram. Libretto by Jerre Dye. Conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya. Directed by Alison Moritz. Lighting designed by A.J. Guban. Costume Designed by Lynly Saunders. With Alexandria Shiner, Eliza Bonet. Timothy J. Bruno, Hannah Haggerty, Marlen Nahhas, and Arnold Livingston Geis. Commissioned and Produce by Washington National Opera. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.