Combining six chamber operas, four stellar singers, five instrumentalists, one intrepid conductor, and a stellar artistic team, the self-proclaimed “fun and fearless” opera collective, Experiments in Opera had all of the ingredients to create a richly fulfilling evening of Flash Operas, which they presented at Symphony Space on May 5-6, 2017 as part of the New York Opera Festival. The variety and quality of compositions and the talent of the performers is welcome evidence of the richness and vitality of the New York music scene.
The evening opened with Cristina Lord‘s Pledge Drive, a cheeky look at the frivolous side of fundraising in the era of GoFundMe campaigns and stereotypical Millennial sensibilities. In this scene, friends of Patty, an aspiring writer, attempt to raise money for her writing career. Self-absorbed and ditsy, Patty is portrayed with aplomb by Elyse Kakacek, who nailed the opera’s opening bel canto-style cadenza with good intonation and comedic sincerity. Mezzo-soprano Kate Maroney displayed a warm middle register and excellent diction.
The mood intensified in the next selection, Mandela Was Late by Nicole Murphy, featuring tenor Timothy Stoddard as Nelson Mandela’s overwrought and jaded parole officer and baritone Eric McKeever as Mandela. Murphy’s score is filled with jazzy syncopation and layers of repeated motifs underscored by the percussive and driven vocals of the parole officer. Stoddard was an exciting and kinetic performer, wholly embodying his character’s high-strung persona and displaying a beautiful voice and crystal-clear diction. McKeever was a stately and refined Mandela with a rich warmth and lyricism in his voice.
It was back to comedy with Matthew Welch‘s Level, a hilarious take on an expectant young couple’s anxieties as they eagerly prepare the nursery for their impending arrival. To their great dismay, they realize that every possible surface in the room is not perfectly straight, and in their tremendous stress, they lament, “It’s all cockeyed! He’ll never get his bearing!” despite the obvious reality that newborns don’t walk, and they are perfectly fine navigating the space despite the minor imperfections of the room. Timothy Stoddard was particularly convincing as the stressed-out dad-to-be, wielding the level around the stage as a half-anxious loon, half-domineering contractor. Welch’s music is sincere and dramatic, displaying the surging emotions of the inexperienced pair without betraying the ridiculousness of their dilemma.
In contrast, there was nothing humorous about Aaron Siegel‘s The Wallet. In this short portrait of a single evening at a toll booth, Siegel tackles the daunting subject of domestic abuse without trying to solve, sugarcoat, or otherwise mitigate the problem. The toll booth worker, sung with tenderness and warmth by Maroney, ponders her life as it passes her by while she is stuck working in an unfulfilling job. Just as she airs her sadness, a woman (soprano, Elyse Kakacek) who has obviously been battered and beaten appears. The woman sings a lament recalling broken glass, screaming, and a heartbreaking past. The women do not discuss the abuse in detail, but instead join together in a moving duet singing, “We had to leave and we did…that’s our world passing by.”
Miguel Frasconi‘s Things You Should Know was a unique musical foray into a world of philosophical musings and ethereal acoustics. The women’s balletic gestures effectively complimented the soundscape. The evening concluded with Jason Cady‘s The Voices in My Head, in which a drunken bar-goer worries that he’s hearing voices in his head, but rather than psychosis, it turns out that he is simply narrating his many conflicting, confused, and altogether jumbled thoughts inhabiting his mind. The entire ensemble joins in for this pop-infused dance party donning boxers and beer helmets. In addition to excellent musicianship, the singers displayed their (rather impressive) hula hoop skills and left the audience with a bit of levity. Who says that opera can’t be pure fun?
David Bloom led the orchestra with precision and sensitivity to the singers. The instrumentalists were outstanding both as an ensemble and in their solo moments. The staging, props, and costumes were minimal and incredibly effective. With its presentation of Flash Operas, Experiments in Opera has proven once again that the so-called “indie” opera companies in New York City can be cultural icons by showcasing innovative, well-written pieces performed by impressive musicians in an intimate space. Add them to your list of next season’s “must-see” ensembles!