Marie Incontrera’s Riot Girl Opera (A First)
Marie Incontrera’s At the Other Side of the Earth, a riot girl opera, received its exciting premiere on May 18 in NYC. The opera was one of a kind in telling the story of a lesbian woman in a fictional (but not unrealistic—Rick Santorum did win the Republican primaries in 11 states) Christian fascist society finding herself in love with a powerful out and uncompromising riot girl. Incontrera’s compositional skills paved a musical process full of passionate outbursts, enticing rhythmic cells, astringent dissonances, ominous tension, and humorous moments well fitting for the subject matter.
For me the musical highlight was a climactic moment in the storyline utilizing all three female vocalists. The three-part vocal writing was intense, and felt like just the right kind of burst of unrestrained passion that expressing illegal love would be. Coloratura soprano Ilana Zarankin handled the leapy high vocal passage with just the right energy and finesse.
The cast as a whole did an excellent job fitting into character in both their singing style and stage presence. Jasmin Presson, playing Layla the riot girl, displayed the right kind of example-setting confidence and in-your-face attitude toward authorities. Speaking of the authorities, Michael Douglas Jones , playing “The Man,” conveyed the exact kind of arrogance, oppressive ideology, and idiocy you hear from these sorts of people in real life.
The libretto centered on the idea of Aurora I (played by Katherine Cardin), a somewhat meek though at the same time curious woman, transforming into the confident and comfortable Aurora II (played by Ilana Zarankin). The contrasting singing styles, with Aurora I calling for a perfect yet timid approach and Aurora II calling for a from-the-gut virtuosity, did well to present this conception in the music.
Stage movement also contributed to this sense of character and conflict, and the physical space was put to good dramatic use by director J. Julian Christopher with minimal costuming. “The wife,” in a white dress and white makeup with an X taped over her mouth, was a nice visual representation and served as something of a physical centerpiece to the drama.
I appreciated how At the Other Side of the Earth presented its subject matter in a way that was very upfront and almost abrasive. This captured the struggle and confrontation involved in coming out. Radical and progressive politics in the US are all too often presented with timidity and fear of “alienating” people that dulls their edge, and Incontrera’ opera was a welcome exception to this trend. Her incorporation of the “it gets better” theme was an excellent way of connecting an artistic endeavor to a current and pressing political and social movement.
At the same time, the libretto felt too much like a narration with little in the way of character development. The moments of humor and passionate outbursts were well done, but the development of Aurora I into Aurora II was not pursued enough as a storyline or through that good old opera technique of character self-reflection. The characters were a bit too one-dimensional, but of course in a short opera it would be difficult to do otherwise. The frequent blurring of the line between recitative and aria likewise contributed to this dilemma. This seems like a larger problem in new opera: how to develop new forms that fit a new musical language without losing the drama and character development that made opera all the rage in 19th-century Europe.
With the limited resources at her disposal, Icontrera managed to create a cohesive work full of contrast and she has clearly developed her own unique musical language. Her use of dissonance was clear and fitting. The rhythmic cells she created were catchy and off-kilter at the same time—in this I could hear the influence of her teacher Fred Ho. The ominous build-ups in the strings worked well to give shape to the unfolding drama. Incontrera pulled out a swath of different sounds and textures from the string quartet that was the orchestra for this performance—impressive considering the limited instrumentation. Even so, a wind instrument or two might have provided the music with some added possibilities and excitement. All in all, Incontrera’s cohesive and individual voice as a composer is something I hope to hear more of.
Finally, it was good to see At the Other Side of the Earth premiered at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center. The Center has served an important role in NYC and the country as a whole since 1983, providing a safe space as well as fostering activism full of defiance (ACT UP was started there). It has consistently opened its doors to all sorts of radical and progressive organizing efforts. Even though the acoustics left something to be desired (it’s not like it was designed to be an opera hall after all), the Center was a perfect fit for the first riot girl opera.
David Pearson is a saxophonist residing in NYC.