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Composers & The Voice: Six Scenes

October 4, 2008
South Oxford Space
138 South Oxford St.
Brooklyn NY 11217

Singers: Jennifer Berkebile, Matthew Curran, Marcus DeLoach, Abigail Fischer, Melissa Fogarty, Robert Hoyt, Michelle Jennings, Donna Smith, Matthew Worth, Thomas Wazelle, and Josh Mertz.

Co-Music Directors: Jennifer Peterson and Kelly Horsted.

Adapted from the press release: Each season American Opera Projects selects six composers to work collaboratively with singers on writing for the voice. Created and led by Steven Osgood, Composers & the Voice participants meet in closed sessions from November to May to present and discuss new works composed specifically for the individual voices of the Resident Ensemble.

Review by Steve Koenig

In a most beautiful, small auditorium, American Opera Projects presented six works for voice and, I assume, orchestra. Of course, here the vocalists were accompanied by piano, which was frustrating only insomuch as nearly all the works are strong enough to gain full production, and some obvious orchestrations improvised themselves in my head. I hope one day to hear these completed, with ensemble or orchestra.

American Opera Projects' next offering is a New York concert reading (November 21-22, 2008) of the first opera by Broadway great Stephen Schwartz, a "psychological thriller" called Séance on a Wet Afternoon, before its premiere at Opera Santa Barbara in 2009. Meanwhile, here's a glimpse into the future:

The Trickster & the Troll: Act 1, Scenes 1 and 2.
by Kristin Kuster. Libretto by Darla Biel.

Based on a children's story, The Trickster & the Troll strikes that perfect balance which allows a tale of migration to be simultaneously a tale of loneliness and of alienation. The family's troll is told he must leave Norway to accompany the American-bound son and his wife. The troll heaves great melismatic, forlorn and uncomprehanding "Why?"s as the mother sadly sings, "Troll, Troll, I worry for my children," piano rippling worry underneath the word. As the troll, Robert Hoyt's voice rang deep and clear, as a troll should, with rich tone and clear diction.

The Doctors' War
by Ray Lustig. Libretto by Matt Doherty.

A fascinating idea for an opera, this. The Doctors' War is a true-life story of unaccepted ideas; the doctor who discovered that washing hands can halt spread of disease and his conflicts both with the medical establishment and with his wife, as he uses the controlled environment of a whorehouse as his laboratory. Musically, interest is immediately drawn due to what I can only describe as sonic (here, a piano) waves of curiosity. There is much black humor built in to the story, Brechtian sarcasms and some grand melodies. The weakness, for me, is the often-stilted libretto, which neither reads nor sings as well as the music does.

Love/Hate: A Chamber Opera
by Jack Perla. Libretto by Rob Bailis.

A humorous skit-like take on romance and relationships, Love/Hate features lovely harmonies, and some knuckle-busting piano during the "Seminar" scene, and a sheep named, of course, Agnes. Ultimately, it felt more clever than moving.

Antinous & Hadrian: Act 1, Scene 1
by Clint Borzoni.

This historical opera opens with the question of whether, following Hadrian's collapse in the Senate, his young lover Atinous would be given power, via adoption, as Hadrian's heir. Being both political and romantic, this is perfect material on which to base an opera. Borzoni demonstrates excellent art and craft in his setting vocal lines using a most natural English speech patterns yet remaining melodic, a rare feat. There is luscious duet writing, especially for the women, and Jennifer Berkebile's powerful, focused soprano stood out in the role of Sabina.

Peter Quince at the Clavier
by Andrew Staniland.

This is a song sequence rather than an opera, using the Wallace Stevens poem. The music often punctuated and commented on the text rather than underlined it. A mere few keystrokes suggesting water. In this setting about love, spirit and death, composer Staniland achieves the narrator's sensibility: "JUST as my fingers on these keys/ Make music, so the self-same sounds/ On my spirit make a music too/ Music is feeling then, not sound/ And thus it is that what I feel/ Here in this room." Baritone Matthew Worth was exemplary in his clear yet totally musical enunciation, the timbre made me think of the woodiness of an acoustic doublebass in jazz; warm and rich. It would serve a baritone well to include this work in a recorded or live recital.

Willa Cather's 'Paul's Case' : Scene 1: The Principal's Office
by Gregory Spears. Libretto by Kathryn Walat.

Mystery is present from the outset, thanks to tolling notes opening Cather's classic story of a young man expelled from school for vague and mysterious reasons. Paul pleads his desire to stay, or to not stay, as a trio of schoolmarms gossip about his queerness behind his back, and the Principal conveys his conflicting reactions. Composer Spears cleverly uses the device of repeated phrases and variants to second the ironies and conflicts within and between the characters. Most excellent, perhaps the best of the six.

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