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Harrowing Times: ‘Fellow Travelers’ Triumphs at Cincinnati Opera

June 24th, 2016 Comments off

by Ryan Leeds

'Fellow Travelers' at Cincinnati Opera.

‘Fellow Travelers’ at Cincinnati Opera.

Tales of forbidden love are as old as storytelling itself, but rarely are they told with as much painstaking heartbreak as Fellow Travelers, a new opera by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce having its world premiere at the Cincinnati Opera.

Based on the 2007 historical novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon, Fellow Travelers tells the story of Hawkins Fuller (Joseph Lattanzi) and Timothy Laughlin (Aaron Blake), a gay couple who find themselves embroiled in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s (Marcus DeLoach) witch hunt to prosecute homosexuals amidst the 1950s threat of communism.

Fuller, a dashing, masculine state department employee meets the sweet, “boy next door” type Laughlin at a park in the Washington D.C. neighborhood of Dupont Circle. In spite of their polar opposite world views, Fuller and Laughlin—whose pet names for each  another are  “Hawk” and  “Skippy,” respectively—fall madly for one another.

Hawkins assistant, Mary Johnson (Devon Guthrie) and another office secretary, Miss Lightfoot (Alexandra Schoneny), overhear the lovers at an office party, setting the wheels of suspicion and scrutiny in motion. If their surreptitious affair weren’t enough, it is further complicated by their own internal struggles. Fuller is torn between marriage to a woman for career and convention’s sake, and his affection for Laughlin.

Laughlin’s inability to reconcile his Catholic faith and gay relationship plagues him. Librettist Greg Pierce has done a remarkable job with character depth. He has adapted Mallon’s fictitious leading roles into multi-layered men of complexity. It should also be noted that Mallon, who identifies as a gay conservative Catholic, based Laughlin after himself, making the piece all the more potent.

The Jarson-Kaplan Theater at the Aronoff Center for the Arts.

The Jarson-Kaplan Theater at the Aronoff Center for the Arts.

Pierce has also achieved success by keeping his story and the cast lean. Composer Spears has created a score that is often hauntingly beautiful yet simultaneously tuneful. Its musical resonance within the intimate Jarson-Kaplan Theater at the Aronoff Center for the Arts, can also be attributed to conductor Mark Gibson’s passionate skill.

Vocally, there is not a weak performer on the stage. Lattanzi’s rich baritone, combined with his imposing height is swoon-worthy and could probably charm the pants off of Rush Limbaugh; an incredibly unsettling image, but I think I’ve made my point. Blake’s tenor is spectacular and clear. Even in his upper register, his tone remains wholly focused. The rest of director Kevin Newbury’s cast is stellar but it is Lattanzi and Blake who do most of the heavy lifting here.

Victoria (Vita) Tzukun’s set design is appropriately sparse, yet slick. With a few simple pivots, we are transported between the office and various apartment settings. Paul Carey’s stylish costumes evoke the strict conformity of the era and Thomas C. Hase’s dramatic lighting adds a subtle yet important layer of profundity to the tragic tale.

By the time the curtain fell, there were stifled tears , caused not only by the events on stage, but because they inspired serious reflection about the state of our nation. While this is a gay themed opera, it is impossible not to draw a correlation between McCarthy’s lavender scare and the anti-Muslim sentiment that has recently become sickeningly acceptable in our country. In addition, the Orlando tragedy remains on the forefront in our community and has rippled throughout the world.

Thankfully, stories like this provide a civil, but extremely powerful catalyst for change and help reinforce a defiant pride suggesting that we will not remain invisible, bullied, or powerless. Not only does love ultimately win; music shares in the triumph.

Fellow Travelers
Cincinnati Opera
Aronoff Center for the Arts
650 Walnut Street, Cincinnati, OH
Through July 10

For more information on arts and culture in Cincinnati, visit www.CincinnatiUSA.com.

Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook

Preview: By You That Made Me, Frankenstein

August 21st, 2014 Comments off
"By You That Made Me, Frankenstein" (photo: Harish Pathak via The Broadway Blog).

“By You That Made Me, Frankenstein” (photo: Harish Pathak via The Broadway Blog).

When a young Mary Shelly ran away to the home of mad poet, Lord Byron, an infamous writer’s circle began. In the long nights of drinking, ghost stories, and free love—both Frankenstein and the Vampyre were born. By You That Made Me Frankenstein, a world-premiere opera, captures the passion and madness of these complex relationships.

The Philadelphia Opera Collective continues to redefine opera with their second, completely internally created opera. Their ever-present mission to engage new audiences with the visceral, living art of opera continues with an English libretto created by the POC and music by Reese Revak and newcomer Josh Hartman. The show opens on the September 12 and will be held in the parlor of Philadelphia’s oldest writer’s club, The Franklin Inn Club (205 S. Camac St.).

By You That Made Me, Frankensteinwill explore the complex relationships of the artists living at Lord Byron’s estate during the summer of 1816 and the competition that would give the world Frankenstein. “That summer they redefined a genre! That is exactly our mission—to redefine opera. It is the perfect choice, then, to focus on Mary Shelley and Lord Byron during this exciting time in our company’s history” says producer Michael A. Lienhard.

“We all have monsters inside of us. More often than not we create the monsters present in our lives and we become the same to others. Shelley intended The Monster to be a personification of the damage we cause to our friends and lovers” Lienhard, who will be playing the Monster, goes on to say. This theme of dark exploration has become a trademark of the POC. “In order to appreciate the light inside of us, we need to identify the darkness. In 1816, those artists in Geneva felt the same way.”

The production will take place at the historic Franklin Inn Club. Founded in 1902, Philadelphia’s oldest literary club will provide an intimate and unique experience for audience members. The club was designed to reproduce the intimate parlor ambiance present in Ben Franklin’s time. What began as a watering hole for authors has become a haven for artists of all mediums… like opera singers. Sitting in well-worn armchairs and sofas and surrounded by books, the audience will sip on wine while watching the map poet, Lord Byron, initiate the Ghost story competition that would give the world Frankenstein.

Also, they will be breaking operatic ground by juxtaposing the operatically trained and untrained voice. Lienhardfeels that “the human voice is the most delicate and versatile instrument available to us. By casting opera singers andnon-opera singers we can explore this amazing instrument in all its glory while the audience can experience a once in a lifetime event.” The audience will be met on a very primal level and truly understand all the colors and shapes that opera can take.

By You That Made Me, Frankenstein
Philadelphia Opera Collective
The Franklin Inn Club, 205 S. Camac Street
September 12 – 21

Review Round-Up: “Two Boys” at the Met

November 15th, 2013 Comments off
Paul Appleby as Brian in Nico Muhly's "Two Boys." (Photo: Micaela Rossato/Metropolitan Opera)

Paul Appleby as Brian in Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys.” (Photo: Micaela Rossato/Metropolitan Opera)

Last month we chatted with Paul Appleby, the up-and-coming tenor appearing in The Metropolitan Opera’s U.S. premiere of Two Boys. This contemporary piece by Nico Muhly recounts the troubling relationship between Brian and Jake, two teens who meet in an online chat room. When Jake is found murdered, detective Anne Strawson is assigned the case. As she investigates, the detective unearths a complicated web of intrigue, murder, sex and deceit — all carefully manipulated from the minds of two teenage boys.

If you’re expecting The Magic Flute, beware. Muhly’s haunting score echoes like the invisible data transmissions of the chat rooms themselves. The stark set, with video projections by 59 Productions, and choreography by Hofesh Shechter lend an other worldly feel to the production, as these elements weave their way in and out of the detective’s interrogation and Brian’s fantastical descriptions of the characters he’s met online.

While on a broad scale, Two Boys’ subject matter is timeless in the opera world: love, deceit and murder. But the 21st interpretation of these themes resonates on visceral level and sometimes feels awkwardly delivered through the medium of opera. (Hearing and seeing a classically trained tenor masturbate on the Met stage is one for the books.) That said, Bartlett Sher’s sensitive direction keeps the action grounded in reality and the production ultimately delivers a haunting, powerful message about the virtual world we live in.

The Met should be commended for commissioning what many will consider controversial material and putting it front and center. What did the critics have to say?…

“I wish I could say that “Two Boys” is that longed-for success. The score, rich with intriguing harmonies and textural intricacy, shimmers in Mr. Muhly’s vivid, subtle orchestration, especially as conducted by the impressive David Robertson… But having a compositional voice is not enough in the elusive form of musical drama that is opera. The score does not sufficiently penetrate the complex emotions and shocking interactions between the characters in this story, set in 2001.” The New York Times

“[Two Boys] is an assemblage of ill-fitting components, many of them very fine, others promising but neutralized by context. Muhly, a phenomenally talented 32-year-old composer, and Lucas, a veteran playwright, backed by the full faith and credit of the Metropolitan Opera, have produced a police procedural with an Internet angle and a lurid dénouement.” Vulture.com

“The opera plays like an episode of “Law & Order” with music, but the music, though ear-pleasingly tonal and accomplished, never makes a visceral connection. The libretto, by playwright Craig Lucas, is tight and swiftly paced; the online chat exchanges between Brian and Jake’s various avatars lend themselves to short text lines. Atmospheric orchestral music helps to build suspense and make Brian’s enchantment somewhat credible, but it works more like a film score, supporting the words and story, rather than creating its own world.” The Wall Street Journal

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Baden Baden 1927 Opens in New York

October 25th, 2013 Comments off

Baden Baden 1927

By Christopher Ludgate

Gotham Chamber Opera’s opening night gala of Baden Baden 1927 in New York City last night was an engaging visual feast for the senses. The production is an unwavering nod to the company’s mission to continue to facilitate the creative evolution of opera in a post modern era of mixed-media landscapes. Many houses around the globe are beginning to take this trend seriously, but Gotham, in its 12th season, proves with Baden that they continue to be keenly on the pulse of lively and relevant productions.

A fully-staged re-creation of these four one-act opera’s, that were originally performed in a festival in Baden, Germany in July, 1927, Baden Baden 1927 consciously takes you on a provocative journey through each of its quarters. Beginning with Darius Milhaud’s and Henri Hoppenot’s L’enlèvement d’Europe (The Abduction of Europa), the audience is lured to merge with spectators at a gallery and all are provoked to explore the meaning and direction of art, and the evening becomes an intimately honest one, as it often does with Gotham.

Scottish director, Paul Curran’s refreshing concept of constant dramatic physical movement illustrates this by making full use of a talented chorus with the attractive principals including the voluptuous Maeve Höglund, adorable Daniel Montenegro, John Cheek, Matthew Tuell, and Michael Mayes at the helm with a passionate score powerfully conducted by Neal Goren.

Goren and Gotham both begin to shine even brighter with the perfectly paced and unexpectedly accessible production of Ernst Toch’s and Benno Elken’s The Princess and the Pea. The engaging comic timing of the whole team, including that of Jennifer Rivera, Ms. Höglund, Mr. Montenegro, is infectiously effective. But, above all, the charms of the legendary soprano Helen Donath, who makes her return to the New York stage in an outstanding performance as the matriarch of a somewhat pompous, albeit royal family in this piece, is one of the major highlights of evening. It could be reality TV at its best.

Gotham Chamber Opera

Successfully facilitating the generous and tasteful art direction of Georg Basiletz, the collaboration of the lighting and the video design, by Driscoll Otto and Paul Hackenmueller respectively, works in unison throughout each piece, and continues to keep an up-tempo visual in Paul Hindemith’s Hin und zurück (There and Back), presenting a challenging temporal poetry and nostalgia that reflect a romantically feminine experience with humor and heart.
What may be the most evocative piece of the set is Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel. The relevance and cynicism of dystopian fears amongst the early industrial and modern ages during the rise of fascism are juxtaposed with some of the eerily similar issues that appear to be repeating themselves in today’s socio-economic and political landscapes, reflecting both an individual’s desire for freedom and escapism from the existential.

The engaging and intimate narratives are enjoyably executed with nonstop but also non-gratuitous multi-media backdrop enhancements during the two-hour production, and elaborate the quick journey of the production as a whole which can easily leave one refreshed, substantially satisfied, and more than willing to go with this new direction of opera.

The remaining limited dates for Gotham’s Baden Baden 1927 at the Gerald Lynch Theater at 524 West 59th Street in NYC are October 26th and 29th with a few tickets still available.

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