Putting Opera on the Spot, with On Site Opera

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COMPANY REVIEW: On Site Opera (New York City);

PERFORMANCE REVIEW:  An Evening of Monodramas – La Morte de Cléopâtre by Hector Berlioz; and Miss Havisham’s Wedding by Dominick Argento; The Harmonie Club, 4 East 60th Street, New York, New York (September 29 and 30, 2016; viewed September 30).

“Waiter! There’s a diva in my soup!”

Blythe Gaissert (Cleopatra) and Leah Partridge (Havisham), Photo: David Andrako

Blythe Gaissert (Cleopatra) and Leah Partridge (Havisham), Photo: David Andrako

Actually, there wasn’t any soup – but a double helping of diva was definitely on the menu at Manhattan’s Upper East Side Harmonie Club on the evenings of September 29th and 30th. That’s when On Site Opera, a spry and peripatetic company that has been generating surprising, up-close opera experiences around the city since 2012, served up their evening of “monodramas” in the club’s swank ballroom. The evening began with Hector Berlioz’ 1829 La Morte de Cléopâtre, performed by mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert; and continued with Dominick Argento’s 1979 Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night, starring soprano Leah Partridge.

What a Feeling

The evening brimmed with revelations. First, there was the novelty and sense of discovery in encountering the two pieces themselves – each so rich, so compact, so full of drama and compelling musical ideas, and both rendered with energy and virtuosity. Then, there was the gobsmacking experience of having the performers right there at one’s elbow, inches away – Cleopatra’s gown wafting against your shoulder as she passed, Miss Havisham’s old lace perfuming the air as her doleful countenance met yours in a transfixing intimacy.

And, above all, there was the sound! Who among even the most devoted opera-going laity ever gets to be this close to the source of surreal, nigh-superhuman vocal production? The outrageous and rich hyper-functionality of the operatic voice at proximities such as these is palpable to a fare-thee-well, engendering effects tantamount to an aural contact high. These are close encounters of a very special kind.

“You can feel it vibrate right in your bones,” says Eric Einhorn, the founder and artistic director of On Site Opera (and himself a former singer). “There’s always that audience shock of ‘I knew there weren’t any microphones, but that was amazing!’”

Bunch of Animals!

On Site Opera began its adventures in 2012 with a live production outdoors at the Bronx Zoo – a presentation of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1939 mini-opera for children, The Tale of the Silly Baby Mouse, originally intended as the score for an animated cartoon. The On Site production featured special puppet-like animal getups for the singers, created on request by the celebrated Puppet Kitchen, which has also fabricated pieces for (among many other projects) the Met’s Madama Butterfly.

“We did an English translation [of the Shostakovich],” recalls On Site’s producer and executive director, Jessica Kiger. “Parents would ask, ‘When are you doing this again?  When can we come back? My kids never pay attention to anything like this!’”

With that, Einhorn, Kiger and company knew they were onto something special, and potentially very important. If children could be entranced by opera in so distraction-rich an environment as the Bronx Zoo, surely this was a model for drafting and holding onto future opera audiences that was worth pursuing. And pursue it they have.

Jessica Kiger, Eric Einhorn, and Geoffrey McDonald, Photo: Fay Fox

Jessica Kiger, Eric Einhorn, and Geoffrey McDonald, Photo: Fay Fox

Three is a Company…

Einhorn’s and Kiger’s collaboration might seem foreordained. They met working at the Metropolitan Opera – Kiger as a score consultant and production associate for the Met’s Live in HD series; Einhorn as a member of the Met’s stage directing staff who also directs productions at other opera companies around the country.

Einhorn had developed a first-sketch version of his On Site operating ideal – bringing opera to life in various nonconventional settings around New York City – as early as 2011. Meanwhile, Kiger had arrived in New York with both training as a singer and experience as a theater producer – and a particular enthusiasm for site-specific theater. Einhorn’s and Kiger’s interests and energies thus meshed, and – with the addition of accomplished and versatile music director Geoffrey McDonald – a crackerjack triumvirate was formed. On Site Opera was underway.

Members of the Wedding

On Site’s central conceit for the September 29 and 30 Harmonie Club performances was that audience members were guests assembled to celebrate the wedding of Miss Aurelia Havisham (of Dickens’ Great Expectations fame) to her beau, Mr. Matthew Compeyson. Handsome commemorative handbills announced as much, and the room, quite posh, seemed ideally suited to the occasion – if it should occur. (Though, of course, those familiar with the Dickens novel harbored sound suspicions that there’d likely be more breach than observance).

Still, even before any musical performance began, as wine and champagne flowed, On Site’s immersive legerdemain proved its potency, to the amazement even of its prime spell-master.

“I was surprised by the energy and the vibrancy of the room,” confesses Einhorn. “People seemed to embrace it. There was this vibe, like truly going to a wedding,” as strangers, seated together at flower-laden tables, introduced themselves to each other, and chatted with the familial exuberance of in-laws to be.

As it turned out, however, the room first would have to contend with a notable wedding crasher – one not to be ignored.

Famous for Barging In…

Blythe Gaissert, Photo: David Andrako

Blythe Gaissert, Photo: David Andrako

Cleopatra rushed headlong into our midst, propelled by the urgent introductory bars of Berlioz’s passionate score. Mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert was the imperious, woebegone Egyptian queen – her voice by turns potent, keening, indignant. She recriminated with herself for her political and amorous misadventures, bewailed the loss of both Caesar and Antony, and cursed the now-conquering Octavius – the first and only powerful man ever successful at resisting her blandishments and ample charms (what’s with him?). The queen, however, now became resigned to her vanquishment, and as her voice throbbed in tones of glorious tragedy, wine glasses vibrated in sympathy.

Speaking of which….At last, moving to what had a short time before been the bar, Cleopatra fetched the agent of her doom. She turned back toward the audience, and a delicious shiver coursed through the room. A live snake writhed indolently in Cleopatra’s hands as she moved majestically toward the exit, intoning the score’s final words – hoping to be worthy of Caesar in death – and Berlioz’s lurid, final orchestral pulse-beats mirrored our own racing hearts.

Expecting the Unexpected

In some respects, Einhorn is bringing the opera experiences back full circle for New York audiences, to a model that at one time was much more “interactive” than it tends to be today.

“Wagner put the audience in the dark,” Einhorn remarks. And, indeed, it was no less a commentator than Mark Twain who observed, during an 1891 trip to Bavaria, that Wagner audiences at Bayreuth “sit in the dark and worship in silence,” whereas “[a]t the Metropolitan in New York they sit in a glare, and wear their showiest harness; they hum airs, they squeak fans, they titter, and they gabble all the time. In some of the boxes the conversation and laughter are so loud as to divide the attention of the house with the stage.”

Of course, a paradigm of unruly horseplay is not what Einhorn is hoping to revive. But he is alive to the fact that many among 21st-century audiences “want our entertainment differently,” as he puts it. “It’s no longer about being passive. We crave a bit more of a personal experience, a bit more interactivity whenever possible.”

But what of Einhorn’s performers? Do they, too, appreciate this collapsing of distances and barriers between themselves and their public?

Blythe Gaissert, Photo: David Andrako

Blythe Gaissert, Photo: David Andrako

“There’s always a questions about what it’s going to feel like,” says Einhorn, “if a performer isn’t used to site-specific performance.” Still, he continues, there’s also “an incredible amount of interest, and generally an eagerness to work in this kind of form.”

During On Site rehearsals, Einhorn stresses to his company the likelihood of the unexpected. “I’ll suggest something,” he says, “but it will always be qualified with ‘we’ll see when we get there. Remember, there could be an audience member’s foot right there.’”

Ultimately, performers almost always seem to embrace the experience. “As an artist, you put that performance out there and you crave that energy back,” says Einhorn. “It’s what you feed off. You want an engaged, participatory audience. The exciting thing about site-specific as we do it is you get that.” And the performers of the two September monodramas affirmed precisely that excitement.

Of playing Cleopatra, mezzo Gaissert said she found it remarkably empowering to think of audience members as servants or temple priests or handmaidens mutely attending at her hour of crisis – not to mention that, as an intrepid Texas native, Gaissert loved the reaction to her handling of that snake. (“When we first worked with Blythe [in Silly Baby Mouse],” says producer Kiger, “we didn’t’ know what an animal whisperer she was going to turn out to be!”)

And soprano Leah Partridge, as Miss Havisham, inevitably drew rich imaginative inspiration from turning her audience into the various, hazily remembered characters from out composer Argento’s tour-de-force one-act fever dream.

Never a Bride

After Cleopatra’s retreat, and an intermission to catch a breath and replenish glasses, it was time for the Harmonie Club ballroom’s banner nuptial event.

Leah Partridge, Photo: David Andrako

Leah Partridge, Photo: David Andrako

Partridge’s portrayal of Aurelia Havisham was a fascinating and complex interplay of genteel fragility and raging acrimony. Dressed in faded lace, hair in vivid red curls, her eyes wide, her movements lithe, her sanity in shambles and her voice phenomenally affecting, Partridge plied every nuance of Argento’s ingenious, modernist score, playing the room expertly, caressing our sensibilities at one moment as the expectant young bride, her voice delicately evoking the charms and decorum of a bygone era; then, as the scorned, embittered spinster, giving vent to despair that skirted the verges of self-destruction, all of it building to a climax of shattering histrionic and vocal combustion as she flung a clock from the mantelpiece, dashing it to pieces, seemingly in vain hope of stopping time itself. It was a dazzling performance – with one more surprise to come.

After a suspended moment of gathered silence specified in the score, director Einhorn cleverly leveraged the final moments of Argento’s drama to bring the evening’s two performance pieces into convergence. A knock at the door was followed not by a hallucinated visit from Havisham’s one-time lover, but no less a companion than Cleopatra. A closing tableaux presented both ladies poised languidly at the mantle, ready for tea and chat, casting cynical glances over the assembled crowd, evidently assessing how little the opposite sex has changed through the centuries. The monodrama’s final line: “I will tell you all about men.”

Wedding cake (delicious, and far fresher than the one moldering in Dickens’s narrative) followed applause.

Accompaniment for both monodramas was provided by a 15-member chamber orchestra (which included all five members of celebrated string quintet Sybarite5), led by music director Geoffrey McDonald with great vigor and expressiveness. Wonderfully effective enhanced lighting for the shifting moods of the evening was designed by Shawn Kaufman. Costumes were by Fay Leshner and hair and makeup designs were by Affan Malik.

On the Town

While the Harmonie Club event was conceived as a company fundraising event, On Site has made a general point of targeting a wide and diverse array of New York neighborhoods and audience demographics, and of striving to keep ticket prices low and obstacles to attendance at a minimum. In 2013, the company created a fully immersive, site-specific performance centered around a rare revival of George Gershwin’s one-act jazz opera Blue Monday, in collaboration with Harlem Opera Theater. Replete with open dancefloor, cocktail service and a performance of the Gershwin piece, the audience enjoyed authentic 1920s ambiance at New York’s Cotton Club on 125th Street.

In 2014, the company produced Rameau’s Pygmalion – about a statue brought to life by the power of passion – at Madame Tussauds NYC, with additional performances at the appropriately mannequin-tenanted Lifestyle-Trimco Showroom in Manhattan’s Garment District.

Rebecca Fay, Barber of Seville, Photo: Fay Fox

Rebecca Fay, Barber of Seville, Photo: Fay Fox

And the company’s most ambitious – and ongoing – project to date has been its multi-year presentation of a trilogy of operas all based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ 18th-century series of Figaro plays. For this series, On Site has eschewed the obvious choices of Rossini’s and Mozart’s famous Figaro operas in favor of highlighting the virtues and delights of lesser known adaptations – Giovanni Paisiello’s 1782 Barber of Seville was produced in 2015 in and around the Upper East Side’s beautifully restored Fabbri Mansion on 95th Street. And, this past summer, the company presented the North American premiere of Marcos Portugal’s 1799 Marriage of Figaro, staged throughout the premises of the West Village’s eclectic and fantastical architectural refurbishment known as “632 Hudson.”

On Site will conclude its Figaro Project in the summer of 2017 with a production of Darius Milhaud’s 1966 The Guilty Mother (La mère coupable), which adapts Beaumarchais’ controversial and transgressive 1791 sequel to his two earlier Figaro hits. How and where will On Site’s trademark production elements – surprise, novelty, theatrical immediacy – be brought to bear on Milhaud’s exploration of the dissipations and darker themes of Beaumarchais’ final work? No venue for this final Figaro piece has yet been announced, but it will likely contrast sharply and intriguingly with the opulence of the company’s first two installments.

The Why and Wherefore

Asked to reflect on why opera matters so much to him – and why it should matter to audiences – Einhorn rises eloquently and passionately to the occasion. “It’s a communal ritual, really,” he says. “Who doesn’t sing in the shower? From the time you’re nine months old, you sing. There’s such a deep-seated connection to that. So, for me, opera’s not important just because of narrative. There is an inherent primitive quality to it that brings us together. Music is a great uniter.”

And when that music radiates in full, cultivated splendor from operatic organisms, the primal compulsion can be irresistible.

“The aural stimulation of it – at times it borders on over-stimulation” Einhorn says. “Singers creating these sounds that are superhuman. It’s why people like to watch the Olympics. We’re projecting ourselves onto these people, looking at these characters and these performers as higher versions of our collective selves.”

And liberating the operatic enterprise from exclusive containment within formalized venues, passive seating arrangements and the neutralizing frame of a proscenium helps make this primal connection all the more acute.

Producer Jessica Kiger agrees, citing the experience of even passers-by who heard the sound of the company’s Barber of Seville emanating from the Fabbri Mansion courtyard. “People just wanted to stop and listen, take in a few moments of it. A very interesting dynamic that you don’t have when you’re inside a theater.”

“There’s something special that you only get in opera,” Kiger continues. “A feeling that I felt when I did my first opera at the age of 16. Massenet’s Manon. It was a wonderful professional company. I was in the chorus. It was unlike any other feeling I’ve ever had. Being on stage with the orchestra right there, the other singers close to me. Music just in my lap! It really is unlike any other art from.”

In a high-tech entertainment age, the hunger for heightened theatrical intimacy is often satisfied via gadgets and electronic wizardry, exemplified by shows like Broadway’s current hit, The Encounter, which exploits cutting-edge audio technology, and provides each audience member with a separate headset that simulates intimate, multi-source sound. On Site Opera, however, offers the rapture of song and the human voice unmediated by anything but humanity’s original audio technology – the miraculous resonance of the human body.

The Music of Tomorrow

Avid in its mission, On Site Opera is forging ahead with energy – and it’s not alone. Indeed, On Site is in the vanguard of a growing slew of modest-sized “alt-opera” enterprises springing up in and around New York City and beyond. (Over 40 varied member companies currently constitute an initiative called the New York Opera Alliance, fiscally sponsored by OPERA America.)

“We’re really excited to be doing a performance that’s free and open to the public in the Spring,” says Kiger of their plans to produce Mozart’s youthful opera of intrigue, jealousy and abduction, La finta giardiniera, in early 2017, at Manhattan’s West Side Community Garden on West 89th Street, between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues.

“It’s a kind of tucked-in location that holds between 150 and 170 people.” But, as with the spontaneous outreach that was effected by the echoing sounds of Paisiello’s Barber from the Fabbri Mansion, “anybody who’s walking by on the street will get a chance to see what’s going on and listen in.”

And the company has recently announced plans for its first original, commissioned work – a family-friendly, young persons’ adventure opera to be entitled Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt, which On Site will premiere at New York’s American Museum of Natural History in the fall of 2017. With a libretto by Einhorn, and music by prolific American composer John Musto, the opera is based on the girlhood adventures of Rhoda Knight Kalt, whose grandfather, celebrated artist Charles Knight, was deemed “the most influential paleoartist of the early 20th Century” for his imaginative and detailed murals of dinosaurs and other Mesozoic life at the New York natural history museum and other museums worldwide.

A native of New York City, young Rhoda was privileged to accompany her grandfather on regular weekend trips to the museum to witness his visionary recreations coming to life, and to have her imagination fired by a growing acquaintance with the museum’s premiere fossil collection.

Call it a kind of Eloise at the Plaza meets Night at the Museum. The opera was originally suggested to On Site by Mrs. Kalt’s own daughter, and her mother has since gleefully contributed her reminiscences to the project, putting flesh on the bones, so to speak, of this delightful odyssey of discovery.

The work will be integrated with curricular programming at the Natural History Museum, and will subsequently be mounted in other U.S. cities, as well, as co-productions with Chicago Lyric Opera’s Lyric Unlimited, and Pittsburgh Opera.

If a girl-meets-dinosaurs opera doesn’t succeed in building opera audiences of the future, what will?

The There There

On Site Opera is a registered 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, funded by philanthropic donations. It’s a company that deserves to be sampled and supported by opera aficionados and newcomers alike, for the sheer exuberance and intoxication of helping to bring exquisite music out of the opera house – literally thinking outside that box – and instead creating glorious sounds and indelible experiences at zoos and on street corners, from museums to mansions to gardens to…who knows?

When next you’re out and about, and find you’ve got a beautiful melody going round in your head, take a closer listen. It may be an unexpected gift coming to you compliments of On Site Opera.

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About Author

Charles Geyer is a director, producer, composer, playwright, actor, singer, and freelance writer based in New York City. He directed the Evelyn La Quaif Norma for Verismo Opera Association of New Jersey, and the New York premiere of Ray Bradbury’s opera adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. His cabaret musical on the life of silent screen siren Louise Brooks played to acclaim in L.A. He has appeared on Broadway, off-Broadway and regionally. He is an alum of the Commercial Theatre Institute and was on the board of the American National Theatre. He is a graduate of Yale University and attended Harvard's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. He can be contacted here.

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