West Edge Opera has continued its wandering ways, and this year is performing outdoors at the Bruns Amphitheater in the hills of Orinda where the California Shakespeare Shakespeare Theater has its home. It's a beautiful location, though if there are freezing summer winds headed across the East Bay from the Pacific Ocean, this place is directly in their path. Last Sunday afternoon was one of those days. I have not been that cold in a communal setting since Giants night games at Candlestick Park decades ago.
It didn't matter. People were so eager to share an artistic experience with other people after a year of pandemic solitude that the company added a second performance after the first one sold out.
Seats had been taken away to create distanced household pods, and everyone was asked to wear masks throughout, but the truth was that virtually everyone in the audience and on the stage were two weeks past vaccination. This was a coming-out moment for everyone.
Many arts organizations have foundered during the pandemic, but General Director Mark Streshinsky and his board have seem to be accustomed to challenges, and this first shot at unmasked singers outdoors with a live (masked) audience was inspired, cold winds notwithstanding. Snapshot
features self-contained operatic vignettes along with excerpts from longer works-in-progress, and this year's edition was the strongest so far.
The show began with Aléxa Anderson as a spoiled Princess in The Lingering Life
, a reimagining of Noh theater by Japanese-American playwright Chiori Miyagawa with music by Anne LeBaron and a libretto by the ubiquitous Mark Campbell. In a video introduction, the three creators expressed their feminist sympathies, and Miyagawa said she wasn't fond of the "crazy, evil women" narratives that are a mainstay of Noh theater, but the story relates how a Princess is told that an old gardener at the palace is in love with her so she plays a trick on him with a phony assignation.
Daniel Cilli, singing as the old gardener, commits suicide after the cruel trick, and his spirit joins with a young gardener sung by Chad Somers to haunt the Princess for every remaining day of her life. The spare music was lovely, and so were the singers.
The Glass Cage
also featured a ghost in its complicated narrative about sexual assault and PTSD in the U.S. military, with Kevin Gino above very affecting as a soldier who may or may not have raped a female sergeant. The music and libretto were by Stanford University polymath Noah Fram, who was in attendance. The original instrumentation includes electric guitars and it would be interesting to hear in its rock-tinged orchestration.
Musical accompaniment throughout was provided by the new music group Earplay, who performed heroically all afternoon in tough conditions. They all deserve a mention of their own: Tod Brody, flute; Peter Joasheff, clarinet; Terrie Baune, violin; Ellen Ruth Rose, viola; Leighton Fong, cello; Richard Wom, bass; and Brenda Tom, piano. Their music director, Mary Chun, conducted two of the pieces on the program while West Edge Opera's Music Director, Jonathan Khuner, conducted three. (Pictured above is Krista Wigle, who was amusing in her turn as a U.S. Congresswoman.)
Emily Senturia conducted excerpts from Bulrusher
, a work in progress from local composer Nathaniel Stookey from a 2005 Pulitzer-nominated play by Eisa Davis, niece of Angela Davis, and an accomplished singer, actress, and writer. Shawnette Sulker, above, sang an aria as the title character who is found in a basket on a river, like Moses, in Anderson Valley's Boonville in the 1950s.
Besides Sulker's aria, there was a patter dialogue in the arcane 19th century argot called Boont, and a long, fascinating scene between a logger and a madam at the local brothel, sung by Jo Vincent Parks and Deborah Rosengaus above.
Stookey is a gifted composer and this full-length opera could be something special. It will be interesting to see and hear how it progresses.
The fourth, self-contained work was Ten Minutes in the Life or Death of...
with music by Tyler J. Rubin and a libretto by Marella Martin Koch. Pictured above are tenor Chad Somers and cellist Leighton Fong.
It is a short fantasia about a dying man and his memories, sung by Chad Somers, J. Raymond Meyers, and Kevin Gino at various stages of his life and death. Rubin's music was lovely, and so was the singing, but the libretto by Marella Martin Koch felt like one cliche after another, so I stopped looking at the supertitles halfway through. (Pictured above are Somers, Rubin, Khuner, Koch, Meyers, and and Gino.)
This was followed by Invisible
, an intense scene with an art curator played by Erin Neff and her new, young assistant played by Julia Hathaway who is dealing with a recent sexual assault. Neff turned in a convincing, brilliant performance, as she had earlier in The Glass Cage
as a female Army medic who was losing her mind. Julia Hathaway complemented her perfectly.
The libretto by Paula Cizmar was one of the best of the afternoon, and the music by Guang Yang used only two sopranos and a violin, played by Terrie Baune, that managed to conjure a whole world.
The final work, The Promise
, was a bit of a dud, with a Hallmark Channel plot involving a trucking company widower (Daniel Cilli), who has a new girlfriend (Molly Maloney), and a daughter (Julia Hathaway) who doesn't want to take over the family business. Joining in the afternoon's theme, there is also a ghost. The music by Peter B. Allen, a Santa Rosa composer who specializes in hymns and religious music, was pretty and quite singable, but the libretto by Allen and George Pfirrmann was risible. It does have a happy ending, where Daniel Cilli announces that he and his new fiance are "moving to California."
West Edge Opera's summer season of three operas is at the same location in late July and early August (click here for information and tickets
), and if you are a Bay Area local, you don't have to move to California to see them.