Thursday, February 07, 2019

West Edge Opera's Snapshots of Death

West Edge Opera, the adventurous opera company in the East Bay, crossed the bridge to San Francisco a couple of Sundays ago for their annual Snapshot series, now in its third year. The company performs scenes from operatic works-in-progress which is such a good, valuable idea that I wonder why the San Francisco Opera does not try the same thing. By circumstance rather than programmatic design, all four opera excerpts focused on death, a subject I am a little too close to right now. "You could have warned me," I told my West Edge Opera Board VP friend James Parr, above left, at intermission.

First up was The Road to Xibalba by composer Cindy Cox and librettist John Campion. Each opera was prefaced by a short, arty, black-and-white film interview with the creators filmed in some of the harshest lighting imaginable, making everyone look weathered.

The opera was based on a Mayan death legend about twins and a goddess and a tree and so on, and it was wrong on all kinds of levels, starting with the dry, academic music attempting to be exotic with indigenous instruments (well played by cellist-cum-percussionist Emil Miland) and a libretto by Campion that was embarrassing in its mixture of cultural appropriation and attempts at hip vernacular. Even worse, much of the libretto was spoken dramatically without music which was a grievous mistake, because Cox is a real composer and Campion is a dull poet.

Next up was Medicus Mortem by composer Beth Ratay (second from left above) which was a mash-up of the Faust legend with a Kervorkian-style Dr. Death euthanizing his own daughter. The singing and acting by (from left to right) J. Raymond Meyers, Julia Hathaway, and especially Daniel Cilli was convincing and musically satisfying.

The libretto by Andrew Rechnitz was problematic with too many mixed metaphors, but the orchestration and the vocal writing was wonderful, and Mary Chung and her Earplay ensemble shined. It made me want to hear more from Ms. Ratay.

After intermission, we were presented with Marnie Breckenridge singing a three-movement, 20-minute monodrama by composer Nathaniel Stookey called Ivonne, and it was a fully realized masterpiece. Stookey was one of five composers commissioned in 2014 to be part of a site-specific musical theater piece at an old Sears office building in downtown Memphis, where oral histories were turned into musical pieces meant to be performed in the actual abandoned building.

Except for a repeat performance within the year at Wolf Trap, Ivonne had not seen the light of day again until this performance, and it felt like a real discovery. The piece is written for a soprano, two strings and piano, with Ivonne the Head Secretary putting on her makeup armour in the womens' employee bathroom in the first scene, ruling imperiously over her office in the second, and dealing with an employee's miscarriage in that same womens' restroom in the finale.

The oral-history libretto by Jerry Dye, chopped and repeated for music, is absolutely brilliant, and it was the only opera that made me cry, possibly because it was all about survival and restraint around death. Everything I have ever heard by Stookey has impressed me over the years, but this was the first piece that made me think he needs to write a full-length opera. He has a special gift.

The soprano Marnie Breckinridge, icy and tense and finally empathetic, gave one of the greatest performances I have ever seen as Ivonne and she should use it as a calling card for the rest of her life. She was so good that I wished somebody would cast her in Nico Muhly's new opera, Marnie, just so we could see the poster, "Marnie Breckenridge IS...MARNIE!"

I really don't want to write about the set of excerpts from the final opera, Zheng, other than to commend the singers for doing their best in music by Shenji Eshima that was too high in pitch for all of them. The ghastly libretto by Tony Asaro is about the late mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao getting stage four cancer, going into remission, then falling in love with her oncolost who helps her survive, briefly. Instead of making me well up with tears, lines like, "Stage four lung cancer.../It's bad." made me want to laugh derisively. Zheng Cao was a downstairs neighbor of mine for quite a number of years while she was coupled up with the battered but clean and sober old movie star Troy Donahue, and I adored her, so watching her turned into a sentimental too young to die of cancer story was sort of offensive. Meeting a broken down old movie star while she was a young soprano on a cruise ship in 1990 as a Curtis Music student is the opera I want to see.

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