With all the ups and downs that have befallen City Opera over the past couple of years, it's good to see that VOX, their annual performance lab of contemporary American opera, hasn't fallen by the wayside. (NYCO even kept VOX running last year while the rest of the season was basically shelved.) If anything, VOX seems to have taken on new life under City Opera director George Steel and VOX producer Beth Morrison, well known in these parts for her work with David Little and Nico Muhly, among others.
I arrived late to NYU's Skirball Center Friday night, but in time to catch Missy Mazzoli's Song From the Uproar, first heard nearly a year ago at Galapagos. Uproar tells the story of Isabelle Eberhardt, who left her home in Geneva at 23 and spent the rest of her life as a journalist and Sufi in North Africa, where she died in a flash flood at the age of 27. With Missy's driving, repetitive music, and Stephen Taylor's watery black and white visuals, it bore a strong resemblance to Philip Glass' films.
I first heard the music of Scott Davenport Richards at VOX in 2008, and while I enjoyed it, it struck me as more musical theater than opera. (Richards teaches music-theater composition at both NYU and Montclair State, and is the son of acclaimed theater director Lloyd Richards.) The same was true of this year's entry, A Star Across the Ocean, which told the fictional story of a family's trip to Paris in the 60's where they encounter the ghosts of the 1920's expatriate African-American community, including Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson. Ocean was buoyed by its clear, linear text and powerful performances by Darius de Haas and Chuck Cooper, who played The Bandleader and The Back, respectively.
The evening ended with David Little's Dog Days, originally commissioned by the Osvaldo Golijov/Dawn Upshaw Performers Training Workshop and first heard last May at Zankel Hall. The opera (libretto by Royce Vavrek based on a story by Judy Budnitz) describes a wartime scenario in which a man ("Prince") pretending to be a dog befriends a young girl, only to be killed for food by her father, who sees Prince as a threat to their social order. Humorous and disturbing, all at the same time.
A unusual - but essential - ingredient on both Missy and David's works was the electric guitar, played here by Dither's Taylor Levine. Talking over drinks afterward, Taylor conveyed to me the curiosity - and occasional resistance - several orchestra members expressed towards having this unfamiliar instrument in their midst. "I find I have a weird sort of power when I'm in these situations," he said. "They were like, 'What is that thing?' As if they'd never heard one before. Can you believe that?"
No, not really. (You can come hear Taylor for yourself on May 12 at Littlefield, where he'll be playing with Kyklos on the second Feast of Music Presents.)
(More pics at the FoM Flickr page.)