Fruit of the Musical Loom

Opera is not about length, volume, sets, costumes and Sturm und Drang. It’s not always about sex and death, it’s not always serious, and it can have a cast of only one. Opera is about drama, and drama can be compressed as well as grand. The form has its short stories as well as its novels, and the Remarkable Theater Brigade provided a refreshing reminder of all this in their semi-staged Opera Shorts program at Weill Recital Hall last Thursday.

The group presented ten short operas in a program that lasted a little over two hours, and these operas varied in length, subject and style amongst themselves. A few of them weren’t quite opera, but that was no detriment, and a few didn’t work, but the program was enjoyable and the best works demonstrated how good short opera can be.

The composers on the program were Christian McLeer, Artistic Director for the organization, Seymour Barab, Anne Dinsmore Phillips, Rob Voisey, Patrick Soluri, George Brunner, Ben Bierman and Tom Cipullo, with Barab and McLeer offering two works each. McLeer’s “Adrift” and “Fire” opened and closed the program, and were two of the best works, effectively showing what is possible in the short-form, both seriously and comically. In between there was an interesting, and probably unintentional, debate going on about opera and style, with the program see-sawing between truly operatic pieces and music that was more music theater. The difference was in the goal, with the theatrical works telling one tale, not necessarily pithily, and the operas describing some sort of transformation.

Barab’s two pieces, “Gallantry” and “Safari,” were theatrical and literally musical jokes, excerpts from what the composer describes as “a set of short, raunchy musicals under the title ‘In Questionable Taste.’” The joke in the first work, involving a double-booked hotel room, was far more innocent than the description would suggest, but the punch-line was good and the music had the succinct clarity and style of a silent movie accompaniment with the voices on the screen come to life. “Safari,” involving a scorpion’s sting in an inconvenient area of a man’s body, was raunchier, more tightly composed and much funnier, even though one can see the joke coming from a mile away. That the audience still busted out in involuntary laughter indicates how well Barab handled the musical humor, perhaps the most difficult of all compositional challenges. Also on the theatrical side was Bierman’s jazzy, vibrant “The Poem That Nobody Hears,” about a poet hanging out in the same college lounge, working on the same poem for thirty years, all in the goal of meeting coeds. Bierman crafted the lyrics and music to fit into clear song form, and did so very well. Theatrical pieces of music may be about one idea, but the best of them glide through different styles as they go along, and Bierman’s crowd-pleasing work was a pleasure from beginning to end.

A couple works had a shaky hold on the balance between theater and opera, and were unsuccessful for it. “Tempo Fuori Del Tempo,” with a libretto from Marilynn Scott Murphy set by Phillips, started with a strong, bluesy riff, and set the scene and the characters – an American woman and an Italian man who meet on a plane – well, but as the drama turned towards love, the musical and lyrical material was satisfied to settle on the repetition of cliches. This was a disappointment, as the careful elision of moods became mannerism, and the charismatic singers, Laura Pederson and Jamin Flabiano, could not keep the drama aloft. “Delete,” from composer Brunner with libretto by Deena Puffer, suffered from a disagreement between the music and text; the vocal line was self-consciously operatic, full of flourish for the coloratura Monica Harte, but the words were more prose than lyric, more suitable for theater than opera, and indecisive in whether their depiction of the experience of internet dating should be rueful or sentimental.

Of the works that were firmly opera, only one didn’t work, Voisey’s “Poppetjie.” The attempted tale was ideal as an operatic subject, a young girl whose fantasy life elides with reality. Voisey didn’t produce operatic music for the piece, however, as the relentless, Prokofiev-like eighth-note patterns and the monotonous lyrical cadences offered no real musical distinction between the characters and their internal states, which is the fundamental reason to make opera. In contrast, Tom Cipullo’s “Lucy” did just that, conveying what was essentially an internal conversation between a lonely elderly woman, an excellent Elizabeth Bell, and her imaginary visitor sung by Michael Anthony McGee. The drama was in the realization and acceptance of something unexpected, and the lyrical music supported each moment superbly well. This was an ideal example of short-form opera which, like a short story, can present a focussed idea while eschewing non-essential backstory and exposition. Patrick Soluri’s “Figaro’s Last Hangover” did the same to a comical extreme; Figaro Montague and Carmen Capulet, former lovers, meet by chance in a bar just as the news that a giant asteroid will strike Earth in ten minutes is announced. They reminisce, then fight like always, and part. The music is both operatic and ‘operatic,’ effectively using various past styles to lovingly mock operatic genres and characters. The text includes lines such as “an anonymous letter through our mutual friend, Wozzeck,” and a dazzling duo where each character lists the actual opera characters the other has had affairs with. Finally, McLeer opened the evening with a dramatic bang, an intense “Adrift,” with the two characters alone on the ocean after a shipwreck, reviewing the tale of how they got there, where they are now, and what their fate will be. It’s a compact, effective powerhouse which depicts a true internal journey. Chris Trakas, hilarious in “Safari,” sang terrifically as the deck hand. And at the very end, this same composer’s “Fire” answered the musical question of how George Antheil would have sounded in the stone-age. The two male, two female quartet, dressed as Flintstone characters, conveyed a pre-verbal libretto which followed a dramatic journey through group comity, conflict, disintegration and reconciliation, conveyed musically by an adaption of the theme from Jeopardy, some modern-primitive ragtime, a twelve-bar blues, counterpoint in the style of Bach, and a final choral tribute to rocks. It was really well-made, and a real treat.

Along with the generally fine singing, McLeer and Noby Ishida handled the piano accompaniment and music direction, joined on some of the works by the youthful and confident Vox4 Quartet, with some nice hammy turns from cellist Seth Woods.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.