‘The Impossible She’: Lesbian Romance Tells Moving Story

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Robert Maril, Bonnie Lander, and Elisabeth Halliday in Daniel Thomas Davis’ ‘The Impossible She.’
(Photos by Janette Pellegrini)
By Anne E. Johnson

NEW YORK – It’s a hilarious understatement to say there aren’t many lesbian romances in the operatic canon. But composer/librettist Daniel Thomas Davis has done his part to address the imbalance with his opera The Impossible She, which had its world premiere on May 10 at the 124 Bank Street Theater in Manhattan’s West Village. The commission by the ensemble Rhymes With Opera is part of the 2019 New York Opera Fest.

The Impossible She is Davis’ second lesbian-related opera in as many years: Six. Twenty. Outrageous., about Gertrude Stein, premiered at Symphony Space in New York in 2018. While the Stein opera was a surrealist meander through Paris salon life during World War I, The Impossible She, which explores the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and journalist Lorena “Hick” Hickok, focuses primarily on the courtship and sexual love between its two main characters.

A radio interlude featuring the Outside World, a character sung by baritone and skilled comic actor Robert Maril.

The title comes from Richard Crashaw’s 1646 poem “Wishes to His (Supposed) Mistress,” which begins “Who e’er she be / That not impossible she / That shall command my heart and me.” This is one of the poems Eleanor and Hick read to each other on a car trip, on a picnic, decompressing after writing speeches together. Davis uses their love of poetry as an escape from the “Outside World,” the name of the only male character in this three-singer cast.

Elisabeth Halliday sang Eleanor Roosevelt with a voice as imposing as her stature. The sheer size of her sound (which, happily, is also of a golden quality and easy on the ears) aligns with the way most of us think of the brilliant and powerful First Lady. This made it all the more moving when she showed a vulnerable, even joyful side as her love with Hick developed.

Hick was played by soprano Bonnie Lander, who has a light, clear voice that could navigate the challenging leaps and high register in Davis’ score. Lander’s nuanced acting helped unfold the year-and-a-half period of their relationship in about 70 minutes. And unfold it did – much to her credit, director Laine Rettmer did not shy away from the physical aspects of the women’s love.

Rettmer also found clever ways of telescoping action and meaning on the tiny stage that had only a spinning half-wall as a set. When Eleanor and Hick were on a road trip, Rettmer had them lounging on the wall, getting to know each other, while projections of passing telephone poles and highway lane markers represented their travel (Andrea Merkx, scenic design, and Saúl Ulerio, lighting).

Lorena “Hick” Hickok (Bonnie Lander), Elisabeth Halliday (Eleanor Roosevelt), and Present Voice (Zach Herchen).

The opera is structured in five scenes separated by “Radio Interludes.” These interludes featured the Outside World, sung by baritone and skilled comic actor Robert Maril, in the guise of a working stiff down on his luck. America was, after all, in the midst of the Great Depression when FDR entered the White House. Davis found an ingenious way to evoke the era, “broadcasting” his own pre-recorded new arrangements of classic Depression-era songs like Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home” and Bernard “Slim” Smith’s “Breadline Blues.”

Maril sang along with the “radio,” accompanied by the chamber orchestra (behind the stage, significantly muted by a scrim, and conducted by George Lam) and the omnipresent saxophone virtuoso Zach Herchen, who played live onstage throughout the opera. Herchen even had a character name, Present Voice, and although he did not sing, his role on all four sizes of sax made him the hardest-working person in the room.

In the program, Davis calls Present Voice “the composer’s ear and the artist’s eye; you, me, us.” While I didn’t understand how the saxophone represented me, Davis’ use of it was often exquisite, and the rich sound of the instrument vibrating with the voices onstage was breathtaking, as was his choice to save the ethereal soprano saxophone until the end. The vocal and orchestral writing showed the combination of short, repeating minimalist phrases and long, luscious lines that has characterized Davis’ other works. The duet where Eleanor and Hick realize they’re in love is as impassioned as a Puccini scena.

But there were some conceptual issues. Davis explains Outside World as “a shape-shifting figure who intrudes on yet also fuels the two women’s relationship.” I only wish this had been the case. Instead, I found Maril’s character to exist in its own opera, barely connected to the Eleanor/Hick arc. As much as the First Lady preferred not to deal with the outside world, she obviously did deal with it, a historical fact not effectively shown in the opera.

On the other hand, Davis does an exceptional job creating a plot without conflict, something that rarely works. Here it does, and it seems to be the opera’s essential point: These two women find each other and love each other. That in itself is enough of a story.

The journalist Lorena “Hick” Hickok (Bonnie Lander) has a relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt (Elisabeth Halliday).

As a prelude to the Davis work, Rhymes with Opera presented the world premiere of On Loneliness and Solitude, a concert work for two sopranos, tenor, and instruments by Colin Read. Co-artistic director (and conductor) George Lam proudly announced that this was the first premiere resulting from the ensemble’s Pocket Opera Workshop program, which arranges collaborations between composers and singers to develop new works.

Read’s song cycle uses poems by Trumbull Stickney, Katherine Mansfield, and William Carlos Williams, each exploring a different aspect of being — or at least feeling — alone. The vocal writing is lush with rich dissonances, especially for the Mansfield poem. Halliday, Lander, and Maril passed vocal motives to each other and the strings.

The first two poems equate loneliness with sadness or longing, but, as Read put it in a program note, solitude can empower with “the simplicity of enjoying being undirected by others.” With Read’s helpful textual emphasis, Maril gave us a preview of his deadpan comic delivery when Williams writes of being alone in his home and admiring “my arms, my face, my shoulders, flanks, buttocks.” Unfortunately, Rettmer’s over-enthusiastic stage direction kept the singers moving busily, more of a distraction than an aid to understanding.

Rhymes With Opera exists specifically to bring new operas into the world. They’ve commissioned nearly 20 new works since they started in 2007. If this program is any indication of their commitment to quality and innovation, it will be exciting to find out what’s next.

The Impossible She/On Loneliness and Solitude will have further performances at the 124 Bank Street Theater on May 17-18. For information and tickets, go here.

Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her arts journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Classical Voice North America, Chicago On the Aisle, and Copper: The Journal of Music and Audio. For many years she taught music history and theory in the Extension Division of Mannes School of Music.