Like Old Aerosol, New Opera Fallout Lacks Some Punch
By Robert Croan
PITTSBURGH — “DDT is good for me-e-e.” That’s the jingle invented by the fictional Jack Front in A New Kind of Fallout, the opera by Gilda Lyons and Tammy Ryan commissioned by Opera Theater of Pittsburgh and premiered in the Twentieth Century Club’s Art Deco Theater on July 19. Another recurring jingle is the familiar 1960’s advertising tagline, “Better living through chemistry,” a variant of a slogan created by DuPont. These lines delineate early on the irony and tragedy of the opera’s subject matter.
Fallout, said to have been inspired by Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking environmental study Silent Spring, is the first in a series of opera commissions intended to deal with subjects of social and political relevance to contemporary society. In fact, because Carson’s life happens to be protected by copyright, the opera’s central character has been transformed into Alice Front, a Pittsburgh homemaker who, in 1962, reads Carson’s book and becomes incensed over the damage her husband’s company is doing to the earth, its inhabitants, and the unborn child she expects to deliver within the year to come. Carson’s book is a wake-up call to her. Despite the damage it will do to her reputation, her marriage, and her husband’s job, Alice decides to fight for the cause, even if she stands no chance of winning against the interests of big business.
The word homemaker is significant here. In one of the opera’s best moments, a sneering corporation lawyer refers to Alice as a “housewife.” She responds with spunk, demanding that he call her a homemaker. “I am not married to my house,” she sings. “I married a man.” But her spirited argument is all for naught. The CEO of Better Living Chemical insists that “companies have rights, too,” and the company ultimately prevails. “Ecolo-what?” the company men, shout, mockingly.
Unfortunately, despite occasional zippy lines, Ryan’s libretto does not rise to the occasion. Once we know the opera’s premise, her situations are predictable. The device of Old Alice watching the action from her present-day hospital bed as she dies from cancer caused by the poisons from 50 years before is cumbersome and trite. The embodiment of the Earth, Science, and the Word as dancers is extraneous and distracting. The characters are vehicles for preachy ecological sermons, rather than believable people. Composer Lyons’ vocal writing is idiomatic and well suited to conveying verbal values, but her music expresses abstract ideas rather than human emotions.
That said, Fallout provided a lively, entertaining, and thought-provoking evening. Lyons’ score is consistently interesting in her melodic ideas, her setting of the English language, and her differentiation of characters by contrasting musical styles. Jack, for example, has an often jazzy, Broadway-ish musical milieu, while his young wife sings in serious grand opera style. The composer is better in vocal ensembles than solo scenes. No one gets a full-scale aria, but the action moves forward fleetly through melodious ensembles (although the final scene, resolving the loose ends, is overlong and leaden). Lyons’ instrumental details for the small orchestra (expertly conducted by Robert Frankenberry) are as appealing to the ear as they are illustrative of the onstage actions.
Visually, Fallout was a compelling show. Projections designed by Chuck Beard made a backdrop that brought back disturbing recollections to those of us old enough to remember when these happenings were real live news events. Christine Lee Won’s scenic designs and Cynthia Albert’s costumes were similarly evocative of a bygone age. In this framework, the staging by Jonathan Eaton, the artistic and general director of Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, was resourceful, convincing, and cannily appropriate to the theater’s small stage and intimate ambiance. His attention to detail was noticeable, among other places, in the differentiation of character among Alice’s three female friends and Jack’s three male colleagues. Another engaging segment was the barbecue scene: If almost too real in its clichés, it did offer comic relief while advancing the plot’s inevitable nastiness.
Lara Lynn Cottrill’s enactment of Young Alice was a tour-de-force. The character is on stage through most of the opera’s two-hour length (counting a 15-minute intermission), and she sings more than anyone else in the cast. With the personal elegance of a high-fashion model and a clear, searing lyric soprano sound, the accomplished young singer dominated the vocal contingent in solo and ensemble moments alike. She has a good sense of the stage, eliciting compassion even though the libretto does not bring this highly symbolic character to life.
In the early scenes (and a few times later on), Young Alice must sing together with her older, terminally ill, self, sympathetically portrayed by Daphne Alderson, whose husky, deep-toned contralto suggested the toll chemicals had taken on the once-vibrant warrior for humanity. The contrast in the two female timbres created a fascinating vocal combination.
The mellifluous baritone of Christopher Scott, as Jack Front, also blended nicely in his duets with Cottrill, and lent character to the sharply projected scenes with his fellow employees at the chemical plant. His likable, easy-going demeanor made him a vulnerable target for the unfeeling, resonantly vocalized CEO of bass-baritone Glenn Ayars.
Robert Croan is senior editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.Date posted: July 20, 2015