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Encompass New Opera Theatre Presents "Anna Christie" at Baruch Performing Arts Center

by Steven Pisano

20181003-DSC05805(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

Of all the great American playwrights of the last hundred years, Eugene O'Neill has plumbed deeper and darker into the classic American identity than any other. Yet somehow, his work has not attracted composers who might turn his stage creations into operas. Perhaps they've thought there was little to offer on top of O'Neill's own symphonic and often operatic writing. (Personally, I've long believed that any number of Tennessee Williams's plays would make great operas, but that's another story.)

The Encompass New Opera Theatre is now presenting the world premiere of an opera based on O'Neill's early play Anna Christie at the Baruch Performing Arts Center through this Sunday, 10/21. Anna Christie won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922, but is probably best remembered in its movie version, where Greta Garbo first spoke on screen.

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"Frankenstein" and Other Works in Green-Wood Cemetery

by Steven Pisano

20181009-20181009-DSC04065(All photos 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.

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"The Mile Long Opera" on The High Line

The Mile Long Opera17Composer David Lang has never been comfortable with standards of music presentation. Thirty years ago, he - along with Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe - founded Bang on a Can for the express purpose of upending concert hall conventions. Instead of a neat two hour program with a 15 minute intermission, their Marathons run continuously from six to ten hours. And, Lang's music in particular seems to go our of its way to be subversive: among his recent works is a "symphony for broken instruments" (2017) and "harmony and understanding" (2018) for orchestra and audience. 

Four years ago, David decided to eschew the concert hall altogether with "crowd out" (2014), commissioned by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Berlin Philharmonic, and performed outdoors by "1,000 people yelling." He followed that up two years later with "the public domain" (2016), written for 1,000 singers (including your's truly) performing on Lincoln Center Plaza.

Now Lang, along with architect/designer Liz Diller, has come up with his third work for 1,000 performers, "The Mile Long Opera," which is being performed this week along the entire length of The High Line on the west side of Manhattan. (The final performance takes place tonight, starting at 7pm.)

I attended last Thursday's performance, and it is, first and foremost, an impressive feat of logistics and stage design - if you can call the High Line a stage. Some 40 professional and community choirs from around the city have been recruited to participate, comprising a patchwork as diverse as the city itself. There were choirs of Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Ukrainian, and Hispanic descent. There were baptist choirs, new music ensembles, women's choruses. Even Opera on Tap was there.

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"Proving Up" at the Miller Theatre

by Steven Pisano

Proving Up Miller Theatre-50_photo_by_Rob_Davidson(Photos by Rob Davidson for the Miller Theater.)

"Proving Up," the new chamber opera by composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek, opened at the Miller Theatre Wednesday night, to an audience brimming with composers, singers, and directors in the contemporary NYC opera scene. A fellow photographer was overheard saying: "Screw the Met! This is the place to be" - a reference to the news earlier this week that the Met Opera has commissioned a new opera from Mazzoli based on George Saunders’s novel “Lincoln in the Bardo.”

Mazzoli and Vavrek are perhaps best known as the team responsible for 2016's "Breaking the Waves," based on the Lars von Trier film of the same name, which remains one of the standout productions I have seen in the last five years. But "Proving Up" - a co-commission with the Washington National Opera and Opera Omaha - proved to be something very different. Based on a short story by Karen Russell," it is a bleak, mysterious, and slow-moving work about the opening of the American West. In order to earn "free" land being offered by the U.S. Government via the Homestead Acts (known as "proving up"), settlers in Nebraska needed to abide by certain requirements, such as residing on the land for five years and making improvements to it. One of these "improvements" was that settlers install glass windows in their house. It is around one such window that this opera revolves.

The Zegner family has encountered many hardships. Two unnamed daughters (Abigail Nims and Cree Carrico) are dead and buried on the land, though they appear dramatically throughout the opera as mischievous symbols of death, reminiscent of the twin girls in Stanley Kubrick's film "The Shining."  Another older son, Peter (Sam Shapiro), has been seriously injured somehow. The youngest son, Miles, who is supposed to be 11, is played by a grown man (Michael Slattery). Late in the story, a mysterious stranger called "The Sodbuster" (Andrew Harris) appears, but he seems to muddy the story rather than add to it.

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