Remembering Twelve Days of Giving: Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O17

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A RETROSPECTIVE: of Opera Philadelphia’s inaugural Festival O17, September 14 through 25, 2017.

As the calendar rolls into those Twelve Days famed for lovers’ gift-giving extravagance (pipers piping, lords a-leaping, and those five golden rings), let us pause to glance back in appreciation at twelve days of equally notable largesse that came earlier in the year, courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Opera Philadelphia’s “Festival O17” – the first installment of a splashy new tradition that will inaugurate each new Opera Philadelphia season going forward – ran from September 14 through 25. with an explosion of operatic activity throughout the City of Brotherly Love.

Out There…

More than 15,000 people registered for Opera on the Mall

The festival was literally out there, with nary a corner of the city not propinquent to the action. Like an operatic commando team, the Op Philly folks took the city by storm, sowing musical ordnance of every size and description, detonating glorious vocal and orchestral fusillades on staging grounds ranging from the Museum of Art to the Wilma Theater, the Academy of Music to the Kimmel Center, the Barnes Collection to Independence Mall.

It all exemplified – magnificently, swaggeringly – the current Opera Philadelphia strategy (ascendant since David Devan’s appointment as managing director in 2006) of integrating opera into the fabric of the city, making it ubiquitous, hopefully essential.

“One of the great things about Philadelphia,” says Devan, “is we have so many venues, walkable or close. There’s density. So we can really make the ‘city as stage’ work.” Devan likens the approach to that of the diversification of digital entertainment platforms. “You might not even have cable anymore,” he says. “You might be streaming stuff from all over the planet in your living room. And if we think of live performance as a media alternative, we have to live in a broader universe, too.”

Murder, She Sang!

Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack creates the title role of Elizabeth Cree.

One of several world premieres that constellated the Festival O17 firmament was the opera Elizabeth Cree (viewed September 23), an ingenious and bloody chamber piece by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, which treats with cocksure showmanship such themes as murder, deception, sexual perversion, and the capacity for words to obscure as much as they reveal. All that said, what the opera is mostly about is theater itself – the irreducible dysfunctionality of the histrionic enterprise; the dark, sweet, addictive allure of applause. Rarely has the stage stood in the dock so self-indicted, and with such masochistic glee.

Imagine if you will a feminist Jack the Ripper tale told with the arch sensibility of G.B. Shaw, the visual éclat of Tim Burton, and a score that filters music hall through a prism of Benjamin Britten and the Stravinsky of The Rake’s Progress. Throw in a backstage story akin to Todd Browning’s Freaks, a soupçon of All About Eve, cameo appearances by the likes of Karl Marx, and an end-twist worthy of Hitchcock, and you begin to get a sense of the sui generis experience that is Elizabeth Cree.

Based on a novel by Peter Ackroyd, directed colorfully by David Schweizer, and conducted by Opera Philadelphia’s music director extraordinaire, Corrado Rovaris, the production boasted uniformly winning performances, with stand-out turns by mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, lusciously dark of vocal tone and agile of expression in the title role; baritone Troy Cook, rich-voiced, sinister and seductive as the man she marries; and tenor Joseph Gaines in the role of the big-hearted little clown-impresario Dan Leno who takes pity on the destitute Elizabeth and helps make her a star. Indeed, Gaines’ role subtly blossoms through the course of the action to become the opera’s de facto conscience, and has some of the opera’s most affecting, enigmatically beautiful vocal set pieces.

Dan Leno (tenor Joseph Gaines) and Elizabeth (mezzosoprano
Daniela Mack) put on a new act as the Butcher
and his wife.

The clever scenic and costume designs by David Zinn and the exquisitely atmospheric lighting and projection designs by Alexander V. Nichols created a menacing, magical, mini-Grand-Guignol wonderland of the intimate Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.

Tales from the Front

Tancredi (baritone Craig Verm) and Clorinda (mezzosoprano
Cecelia Hall) say goodbye in Monteverdi’s Il
Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. Photo by
Dominic M. Mercier

The famed Philadelphia Museum of Art became the monumentally exciting setting for a program entitled “War Stories” (viewed September 23) – actually, a double bill; Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, a musico-dramatic setting of a text from Torquato Tasso’s 16-century epic “Jerusalem Delivered” set during the Crusades; and a new opera, I Have No Stories to Tell You, by composer Lembit Beecher and librettist Hannah Moscovitch, which proved a moving, timely, and effectively oblique modernist response to the ageless and challenging themes raised in the Monteverdi work.

In Il combattimento, we encounter a grimly fascinating blow-by-blow account of a battle between two fierce, relentless warriors – one Christian, one Muslim. Only too late, upon felling his foe, does the Christian warrior, Tancredi, discover the identify of his combatant – his beloved, the fierce female Muslim warrior, Clorinda.

Principally narrated in tight, nearly parlando vocal lines by an unnamed character (called “Testo,” or text, in the score), the work also assigns sung passages of dialogue to each of the two warriors. The format’s dramatic effect is strange, exotic, and spellbinding, suggestive of the primitive splendor one might imagine of ancient Homeric recitations around a campfire.

The Festival O17 presentation was staged with admirably athletic vocalism and pantomime amidst the Museum’s 12th-century “cloister” – a quadrangular space around which audiences gathered to absorb in bracing intimacy the ferocity and tragedy of Monteverdi’s heartfelt score (a score which, incidentally, is reputed to be among the first pieces of Western music employing the tremolo and the pizzicato).

The vocalists – tenor Samuel Levine and mezzo-soprano Abigail Levis dividing the role of the “Testo”; baritone Craig Verm as Tancredi; and mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall as Clorinda – all mined unaffected, soulful riches from the sometimes savage music and text.

After a break, all four performers were back, along with soprano Sarah Tucker and mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway, in the Museum’s Great Stair Hall, for I Have No Stories to Tell – an ironically titled modern tragedy about a returned female soldier, Sorrell (Hall) suffering nightly bouts of PTSD-related terrors, and her husband Daniel’s (Verm) mounting frustration at his wife’s refusal to narrate to him the traumatic events that prompt her episodes.

Sorrel (mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall) is haunted by
memories (Sarah Tucker, Rachel Calloway and Abigail
Levis) in Lembit Beecher’s I Have No Stories to Tell
You. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier

Tucker, Calloway and Levis amplified the action, playing characters referred to as “Memory 1, 2 and 3.”

The entire ensemble flawlessly negotiated this brave and accomplished opera’s assay of modern tragedy, with harrowing disclosures mounting to reveal profound if invisible scars of war, and a gulf of seemingly irremediable estrangement growing between husband and wife.

Times of Trouble

Another world premiere, We Shall Not Be Moved (viewed September 24), was a “hip-hop-era” with music by Daniel Bernard Roumain and libretto by Marc Bamuthi Joseph. Deploying spoken word, sung word, dance, and a generally swirling and disorienting staging evoking urban unrest, the event was sophisticated, hybrid 21st-century agitprop theater of a high order – a tour de force.

West Philly cop Glenda (mezzo-soprano Kirstin Chávez)
asks Un/Sung (spoken word artist Lauren Whitehead)
why her and her brothers are not in school. Photo by
Dave DiRentis.

The action of the piece took place on two constantly intersecting planes of time and reality. Its contemporary characters – young, minority, inner-city Philadelphia denizens who have co-opted an abandoned West Philly building – must contend with a tragic police shooting and its aftermath. They also interact with the ghosts of a more than thirty-year-old real-life urban tragedy that took place on the same premises – the deaths of eleven members of an organization called MOVE – a “Black Power” civil disruption organization with primitivist leanings (the group reputedly adjured modern medicine and technology in general) founded by one self-styled “John Africa” in 1972 – who perished in 1985 while staging an armed Masada-like standoff with cops.

The ghosts revive old grudges and foster the opera’s latter-day militancies.

John Blue (countertenor John Holiday) laments taking a life. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier.

Directed and choreographed by activist/urbanist Bill T. Jones, and conducted by musical director Viswa Subbaraman, We Shall Not Be Moved was insusceptible of being experienced with emotional or intellectual detachment, as evinced by a post-performance talkback during which avowed reactions ranged from “hopeful” to “sad” to resentment at being “manipulated.”

The ten-member ensemble was impressive, with Lauren Whitehead as the narratorial character called Un/Sung; Kirstin Chávez as protagonist Glenda; John Holiday as John Blue; Daniel Shirley as John Little; Adam Richardson as John Mack; Aubrey Allicock as John Henry; and performers Michael Bishop, Duane Lee Holland, Jr., Tendayi Kuumba, and Caci Cole Pritchett as the “OG’s” (or “Old Ghosts”) whose fates exerted so incendiary an influence on their latter-day counterparts.

Set and costume designs were by Matt Saunders and Liz Prince, respectively; lighting was by Robert Wierzel, projections by Jorge Cousineau, and sound design by Robert Kaplowitz.

After its Opera Philadelphia run, We Shall Not Be Moved did indeed move – to presentations at New York City’s famed Apollo Theater on October 6 and 7, 2017.

Making Magic

The Opera Philadelphia presentation of a new Komische Oper Berlin production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (viewed September 24) (co-produced by LA Opera and Minnesota Opera) was an exuberant visual and musical delight. For sheer sensory stimulation, this was triple-shot theatrical Jägermeister. With its glorious enkindling of the Academy of Music stage, it’s not farfetched to suggest that this take on Mozart’s enigmatic, masonic magnum opus may represent the giddiest, funniest, most accessible mounting of the work – ever. Period.

Papageno’s (baritone Jarrett Ott) trials have ended, and
all he wants is a glass of wine. Photo by Steven Pisano

The overall aesthetic inspiration for the production was 1920s and 30s Germany, particularly, the world of German expressionist film.

Pamina (marvelous, gamin-like soprano Rachel Sterrenberg) was a bob-haired reincarnation of Louise Brooks’ Lulu from Pandora’s Box. The sinister Monostatos (stylish tenor Brenton Ryan), servant to the magician Sarastro, was the spitting image of Max Schreck’s Count Orlok from Murnau’s Nosferatu, while Papageno (comically gifted baritone Jarrett Ott), the hero’s zany sidekick, was garishly distinguished from the black-and-white palette around him by a winningly ridiculous mustard-colored zoot suit.

The hero prince, Tamino (suave tenor Ben Bliss), a tuxedoed and pomaded gent of the smart cocktail set, might have been Ramon Novarro’s stand-in; while the Queen of the Night (thrilling coloratura soprano Olga Pudova) was portrayed as a terrifying, proscenium-filling, human-headed spider. The mystic and austere Sarastro (commanding and sonorous bass Peixin Chen) was hilariously depicted as a top-hatted wizard surrounded by a veritable bestiary of an entourage, including mechanical winged monkeys that might hail from a Duchampian Oz.

Papageno (baritone Jarrett Ott) longs for a Papagena, and Pamina (soprano Rachel Sterrenberg) consoles him. Photo by Steven Pisano

Outlandish projected images and animations were idiosyncratically brilliant, and the deployment of “thought balloons” in place of much of Mozart’s recitative was ingenious and hilarious.

Co-created and directed by Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky, with animations by Andrade’s illustrator-colleague Paul Barritt (with whom she co-founded the performance company “1927”), set and costume designs by Esther Bialas, and lighting design by Christopher J. Hetherington, this was theatrical Zauber indeed.

A Devil of a Time…

Finally, staged in the salon of the magnificent Barnes Collection museum, the Festival presented a world-premiere piece entitled The Wake World (viewed September 25) by composer-librettist David Hertzberg (Opera Philadelphia’s 2017-2018 composer in residence). Inspired by a fantastical literary work by infamous late 19th-/early 20th-century writer, occultist, and (purported) Satanist, Aleister Crowley, Hertzberg’s piece was a lush, unapologetically bombastic theatrical bunker-buster – a choral “happening” masquerading as some sort of mystical initiation rite.

The basic narrative involved the arguably abusive, allegorical romance between a protagonist heroine named Lola and her “Fairy Prince,” the latter leading the former on a quasi-Fifty-Shades-of-Grey quest for enlightenment and fulfillment, challenge by challenge, ordeal by ordeal, through the vast demesnes of the Prince’s mysterious haunted realm.

The Fairy Prince (mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb) guides
Lola (soprano Maeve Höglund) through his palace.

Staged on a runway-style platform that diagonally spanned nearly the entire breadth of the Barnes’ main reception salon, the narrative was amplified by complex and energetic choral singing and choreography by members of the in-house Opera Philadelphia ensemble.

Lola (soprano Maeve Höglund) seeks her Fairy Prince
through the Palace of Names.

Following Crowley, Hertzberg’s libretto featured highly idiosyncratic vocal text, far more musical than sensical, and thus certainly more singable than speakable, language so fulsome and florid it might make the most notoriously overripe passages of Sir James George Frazer’s Golden Bough seem a pallid amuse-bouche.

And Hertzberg’s instrumental score was every stitch the match of the libretto’s density. Indeed, many passages were so assaultive as to be bone-clattering (the fortississimo drum thump that kicked things off was itself a cardiac challenge). In the end, though, the sheer accretion of extravagance on extravagance did exert a certain epic fascination.

Soprano Maeve Höglund was a sensual and vulnerable Lola, while mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb played the Fairy Prince with slick polymorphous perversity. The Opera Philadelphia Chorus played a colorful variety of oddball roles as they roved the Prince’s “Palace of Names.”

The work was fearlessly conducted by Elizabeth Braden, and directed with zest by R. B. Schlather. Plucky accomplishments in costume and lighting design for so unusual a piece in so unique a locale were by Terese Wadden and JAX Messenger, respectively.

And On the Horizon…

The current Opera Philadelphia 2017-2018 season continues with the Philadelphia premiere of composer George Benjamin’s and librettist Martin Crimp’s Written on Skin, from February 9 through 18, 2018 (with special advance exploratory programming on January 30 and 31 and a final invited dress rehearsal for Op Philly “Sustainer” level members on February 7); composer Leonard Bernstein’s and librettist Stephen Wadsworth’s A Quiet Place, from March 7 through 11, 2018; Georges Bizet’s timeless Carmen from April 27 through May 6, 2018 (with a “Sustainer” dress rehearsal on April 25); and a double bill of Kurt Weill’s and Bertolt Brecht’s Mahagonny, paired with Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium, from May 3 through 6, 2018. Also on the roster is a one-night-only event entitled Cycles of My Being, a song cycle by jazz composer Tyshawn Sorey and lyricist Terrance Hayes, performed by star tenor (and Opera Philadelphia artistic advisor) Lawrence Brownlee, on February 20, 2018.

And the company’s Festival O18 has already been scheduled for September 20 through 30, 2018.

Additional information is available at www.operaphila.org.

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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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