A makeshift sawhorse, an oval stock tank, miniature flowers, and a collection of liquor bottles dotted the long thrust stage filled with dirt in The KANEKO in Omaha, Nebraska as the lights came up for the opening scene of Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up as part of Opera Omaha’s April 2018 ONE Festival. The audience sitting in a hodgepodge collection of kitchen chairs on both sides of the narrow stage slowly noticed the miniature flowers sat atop two small graves in the dirt as John Moore‘s baritone voice resonated from offstage singing the prologue – an arrangement by Mazzoli of “Uncle Sam’s Farm (1862)”:
Come along, come along, make no delay;
Come from every nation, come from every way.
Our lands, they are broad enough – don’t be alarmed,
Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm.
Composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek adapted the 2013 short story Proving Up by Karen Russell to create a haunting opera about the hope and eventual anguish of “The American Dream.” This co-commission by Washington National Opera, Opera Omaha, and Miller Theatre at Columbia University is a an example of new work in which many risks have been thoughtfully taken to achieve the full dramatic punch of the work. This particular production benefitted immensely from proximity. The tensions and releases felt more impactful. The passion and dedication of the performers felt more palpable. The irrefutability of human frailty was an omnipresent sense throughout the production.
Being seemingly under the microscope by an audience in close proximity is often detrimental to many operatic performances. However, this production’s cast chock-full of skilled singing actors is a boon. John Moore, as Mr. Johannes “Pa” Zenger, and Talise Trevigne, as Mrs. Johannes “Ma” Zegner, grabbed the audience’s attention with their luxuriant vocalism. Their unwavering commitment to character was also impactful. From the montage effect in the prologue, Moore demonstrated deep control of his character, who is so fallible to the brutal combination of ambition and alcoholism. It was notably impressive to witness Moore stumble around incautiously, his body moving abruptly from upright to face down in the dirt, without sacrificing the vocal line. Trevigne’s character is much more physically solemn. However, she vocally imparts an unforgettable emotional wallop as she echoes a previous musical moment and sings, “Oh God, you are a rumor.”
Proving Up is a ghost story, set in Nebraska in the 1860s, that features characters both living and dead. Mazzoli’s score deftly highlights the characters in either state through timbre and technique. Those living characters, such as Trevigne and Michael Slattery as Miles Zegner, often demonstrated traditional bel canto or baroque vocalism. In contrast, the supernatural characters reveled in extended techniques. The two deceased daughters, Abigail Nims as Zegner Daughter Taller and Cree Carrico as Zegner Daughter Littler, stand out against the living characters because of their blanched, pale faces and garments. But to a greater degree, their vocal lines contrast with straight tone, deconstructed syllabic content, and mimicking the sighing, descending open harmonics in the strings. Andrew Harris, as The Sodbuster, straddles both of these musical worlds. His expressive bass resounded throughout the Bow Truss Gallery and he acrobatically switched registers regularly. Harris and Slattery’s interactions in Part 6 were compelling. Slattery suspended time with his sweet and arresting delivery of “Who owns the land?”
James Darrah, and the rest of the creative team, did an impressive job, particularly given the constraints of the shape of the performance space. It was invigorating to see how they approached the challenges such as the stage action consistently turning to one direction and focal point to stay connected with the conductor. Christopher Rountree resolutely guided the cast and the International Contemporary Ensemble throughout the performance. It was mostly a treat to see Rountree’s vigorous conducting from the front, although it could be distracting at times. It was clear, however, that he was aware of being physically analogous to what transpired on stage. The ensemble was especially interesting in the care and attention to detail they gave to the continuity of the piece. It was a pleasure to hear them open up the rhythmic drive and vibrant sound during Miles’ journey in Part 5.
It is uniquely fascinating to interact with a production that is so specific to its space. Likely, Washington National Opera and Miller Theatre audiences will have remarkably different experiences based on proximity alone. Opera Omaha audiences, in this case, perhaps have the bigger blessing. This performance makes Mazzoli and Vavrek’s work–through the efforts of the cast, creative team, and ensemble–an intensely personal look at the imagined fantasy of the Zegner family—and maybe our own.