Dog Days may be the only opera with a score capable of causing acute physical distress. Regardless, composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek's first full-length opera offers much more than just shock value. So much, in fact, that I returned for a second viewing during its stay last week at Montclair State University's Alexander Kasser theater, equipped with earplugs and Dramamine.
Produced by Peak Performances and Beth Morrison Projects, the opera is based on Judy Budnitz' short story about a family struggling to survive in a dystopian near future while an unnamed war rages on American soil. Director Robert Woodruff stripped the staging and acting of the inessential, leaving an unflinching focus on the erosion of societal and familial bonds, and ultimately the characters' humanity.
At the heart of Dog Days is the relationship between Lisa (soprano Lauren Worsham), an adolescent girl, and Prince (performance artist John Kelly), a man who has abandoned personhood to live as a dog. Lisa, with little comfort from her family, finds solace through befriending Prince.Kelly effectively delivered his role without uttering a word, while Worsham's acting and vocal skills gave great depth to her character. She excitedly sang of her changing body–high cheeks, pointed hips, and washboard ribs–which her character believes is the result of budding womanhood, but is actually the wasting away of a starving child. The impact is magnified by a giant video projection of Worsham gazing into a mirror.
Baritone James Bobick powerfully portrayed a father struggling to fulfill his role as provider, while soprano Marnie Breckenridge played a mother who withdraws from the world into numbness. Brothers Pat and Elliot (tenors Peter Tantsits and Michael Marcotte) struggle with impetuous early manhood in a haze of pot smoke and pornography. Although mostly convincing, Marcotte's Broadway-inflected vocal gestures occasionally came across as parallel to, but not part of, the work's vocal aesthetic.
Pat (Peter Tantsits) and Elliot (Michael Marcotte) credit: James Matthew Daniel
While the dramatic elements were first-rate, Dog Days' musicality never played second fiddle. Brooklyn Philharmonic's Alan Pierson led Little's chamber ensemble, Newspeak, which performed with the signature swagger that the group is known for. The score slides between minimalism and post-rock, with particularly brilliant writing for bass clarinet and percussion.
Despite the overall excellence, most of the post-performance lobby chatter focused on the last scene, which caused the aforementioned psychosomatic provocation that almost sent me hurling (please forgive the pun) out of the theater: As Lisa slowly performs a final act of catharsis, the signature 60Hz hum of a guitar cable appears in the instrumental mix. Not a single character sings. As the scene reveals the depths of the characters' desperation, the hum intensifies with insufferable patience until it swallows all other sound.
Yes, it is a shock tactic, but, despite my physical response, the ending does not prescribe an emotional response, and this is notable. One of opera's biggest assets is its ability to command affect through musical conventions (what David Lang has called the management of emotional life). Dog Days' closing hum reverses this completely. Moral certitude is not provided, and the audience is left to think through the opera's allegory for itself. For both those who bemoan contemporary art as apolitical and those who criticize modern composition for alienating listeners, here lies a stark example of the contrary. This is sheer brilliance.