Wednesday, February 28, 2018

West Edge Opera's Snapshot

The Berkeley based West Edge Opera crossed the bay to the Taube Atrium Theatre in the San Francisco Veterans Building on Sunday for Snapshot, their second annual showcase of excerpts from new operas. This is an exciting initiative that the bigger budget San Francisco Opera should consider emulating, a chamber orchestra and good but not famous singers giving an airing to new works by living composers.

The five pieces varied in quality, which was to be expected, but the performances were all wonderful and the orchestral playing by the Earplay ensemble all afternoon was superb under the alternating conductors Mary Chun and Jonathan Khuner.

Jason Sarten and J. Raymond Meyers above started things off with scenes from an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's final, unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon by Bay Area composer Cyrill Deaconoff with a libretto by the poet David Yezzi.

Being able to write well for the voice is a special talent that some composers have and others don't, and I'm afraid I would put Deaconoff in the latter category after hearing the two or three scenes presented from the full-length opera. (Pictured above are singers Julia Hathaway and Jacob Thompson with composer Cyrill Deaconoff.)

Santa Barbara composer Katherine Saxon above, with conductor Jonathan Khuner above, does know how to write gracefully for the voice, and her scene from 452 Jamestown Place, depicting a woman with Multiple Personality Disorder having a meltdown, was an unexpected delight. There were video interviews with the composers before each piece, and after watching Saxon's rather frenetic intro to her piece, I was expecting something much more shrieky than the very pretty music given to the various personalities embodied by soprano Heidi Moss, who was in great voice.

This was followed by scenes from Dynamo, an opera about Thomas Edison, with music by Larry London and a libretto by William Smock, who had earlier worked together writing and composing music for documentaries. The genius bastard that was Edison is a wonderful potential subject for an opera but London's score was oddly dull and old-fashioned. (Pictured above are singers Jason Sarten and Darron Flagg along with librettist William Smock.)

After intermission, there was an ominous, absurdist interrogation scene from San Francisco composer Erling Wold taken from She Who Is Alive, a dystopian sci-fi novel by local writer Robert Harris. Wold also knows how to write well for voices as he has demonstrated in his previous operas Certitude and Joy and UKSUS, and this piece was simultaneously seductive and sinister, sounding rather like a missing scene from the Philip Glass opera Orphée. (Pictured above left to right are writer Robert Harris, conductor Jonathan Khuner, singers J. Raymond Meyers and Molly Mahoney, with composer Erling Wold.)

The final work, Death of a Playboy, was a self-contained short opera by local composer and singer Brian Rosen which takes place at Hugh Hefner's memorial service, and the music was fun and lively. (Pictured above are singer Darron Flagg as the presiding minister and composer Rosen.)

The narrative was a #MeToo take on the Playboy Magazine founder, with a former Playmate of the Month sung by Molly Mahoney threatening to tell the assembled crowd what a son of a bitch Hefner really was, while being cautioned by her annoying husband that she needs to be polite if they want to keep money rolling in from the Playboy Foundation for their global nonprofit. Julia Hathaway played a younger Playmate of the Month and the scene ended with a beautiful, rueful duet for the two women. (Pictured above are Molly Mahoney, Julia Hathaway, Jason Sarten, and Darron Flagg.)

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