by Steven Pisano
The composer Gregg Kallor has an affinity for the macabre. His musical setting for Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" debuted two Octobers ago in the burial crypt of the Church of the Intercession in Upper Manhattan, and this last week selections from his opera-in-the-making based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein were performed in the catacombs of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
Produced by Andrew Ousley at Unison Media in collaboration with the innovative On Site Opera, Frankenstein featured the baritone Joshua Jeremiah as the Monster, the tenor Brian Cheney as Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and the mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano. Music was provided by Kallor himself on piano and longtime collaborator Joshua Roman on cello. Sarah Meyers was the director. Although only three scenes of the work-in-progress were presented, it is clear that Kallor has grand plans.
What carried the performance, beyond the excellent musicianship of Kallor and Roman and the skin-tingling singing of the three principals, was the intense acting. Cheney's doctor was clearly conflicted, proud of his accomplishment in making the monster come to life, but at the same time horrified by what he had created. Jeremiah (the Monster) felt human (almost) as he recounted how he learned language from a poor family he collected wood for, and how books became so important to him after he taught himself to read. Most touching were the scenes where the Monster asked the doctor to create a companion for him, arguing that he too deserves to have someone to love, and someone to love him.
Also included in the program was a musical setting of Edgar Allan Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart": a gripping tale of psychological terror in which a murderer recounts how "he" (here sung by Ms. Cano) murdered an old man and buried him under the floorboards of his apartment. The murderer is cool and confident at first, but as his guilty conscience takes over, he starts to hear the heartbeat of the victim beating louder and louder, driving him to eventually confess his crime.
On a less grisly note, Kallor played a thoughtful solo piano homage to Leonard Bernstein, who is buried in Green-Wood.
The only bad thing was how few people, relatively speaking, got to see this extraordinary performance, due to space limitations. For a couple of years now, Andrew Ousley's programs have been sold out way in advance, with long wait lists. The intimate venues, of course, are part of the appeal - how often, after all, does one get to hear music in a crypt or a catacomb? But one hopes some future performances will be able to accommodate larger audiences, since every production I have seen so far has been one to remember a long time.