Seeking Humanity Amid Operas That Wax Humanitarian

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Baritone Johnathan McCullough is the sole singer in David T. Little’s ‘Soldier Songs.’ (Photo by Dominic Mercier)

DIGITAL REVIEW – Small-screen opera is increasingly taking on big-screen sophistication, scale and ambition. Eloquence, however, is harder to come by, especially as the high-minded opera creators and administrators are seized with the need to be relevant amid current times but risk losing the essence of what they do.

Recent case histories are alternately breakthroughs and models of artistic self-defeat. Which was which? Opera Philadelphia’s Soldier Songs, which is available on-demand through May 31 or Boston Lyric Opera’s The Fall of the House of Usher, which premiered Jan. 29 on operabox.tv? The reverse of what I expected. 

Still a third item discussed here – a new, multi-authored work by Voices of Ascension titled Astronautica – shows another, particularly Zoom-friendly route into relevance, not quite in the opera zone but close, and one that isn’t so burdened by its own importance, even though it successfully deals with perhaps the biggest issue out there. 

Soldier Songs first. The much-admired composer David T. Little, 42, was in his 20s and years away from his breakthrough opera Dog Days when he wrote Soldier Songs, an hour-long monodrama that portrays an everyman war veteran – from the childhood romance of war to implied suicide amid social isolation and harrowing PTSD. Musically, the piece is a series of dramatically flexible ariosos that evolve into psychologically disturbing collages of sound.

The Opera Philadelphia film, directed by its star, baritone Johnathan McCullough, with a script co-authored by James Darrah, was shot in and around a small house trailer parked way off the beaten track. Outside is a weather-beaten picnic table, a dart board, many cigarette butts, and empty booze bottles. Inside, a poster says “Kill ’em all.” 

If there’s a model, it’s the PTSD scenes in the classic Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now – but shot in the lush, rolling hills south of Philadelphia. Amid the protagonist’s unfiltered rage, video games turn into brutal reality. An 18th-birthday cake is sliced in ways that resemble an open wound. Opera thrives on theatrical netherworlds where viewers imagine what isn’t there, and often wilts amid gritty realism. Not so here.

The film follows Little’s lead in not exploring who the soldier was before his military life, avoiding any temptation to judge the character as a sociological specimen. He could be any of us, as suggested by the diverse voices in the oral histories heard at the beginning of the piece. The audience experiences him in the present tense. 

The opera’s instrumental portion was pre-recorded under Opera Philadelphia music director Corrado Rovaris, though McCullough often sings on camera, feeling like a natural part of the landscape and an extension of what’s going on in his head. His flexible baritone allows excellent diction but, more importantly, a fearless, resourceful, screen-worthy portrayal of a character in crisis. As wrenching as the piece can be – the production warrants a “viewer discretion advised” disclaimer at the beginning – I watched it twice in close succession.

However, I could barely get through a single viewing of Boston Lyric Opera’s film of Philip GlassThe Fall of the House of Usher – a more ambitious stream of images and ideas – but with singers who are heard and not seen. Any humanity is portrayed by sketchy hand-drawn animation, stop-motion footage, and 1950s television clips. No real human contact, which opera thrives on. 

Explanation was warranted, and it was delivered in a separate, online introductory program almost as long as the opera itself, featuring Darrah, who directed the production, and other members of the creative team. All this seemed to suggest hat Edgar Allan Poe’s 182-year-old story needs shoring up to be understood by 21st-century audiences. Why?

My theory: Poe’s enigma-laden story – about a man and his twin sister who are slowly dying in the toxic, crumbling family estate – now runs contrary to our need for clear, confidently stated visions of the world. This production surrounds the story with elements that couldn’t be more unambiguous, whether they make sense or not. 

The pre-opera discussion also talked about the need to bring in talent from outside the opera world, namely screenwriter Raúl Santos. What a disservice this does to him, offering an irresistible opportunity that put him in a new medium where he may not be able to gauge whether his ideas were viable. And what does this say about theater professionals who have been doing great work in this medium for years? That they aren’t up to it?

The Poe characters, when seen at all, are played by stop-motion, doll-like figures. Interwoven is the story of a young Guatemalan immigrant named Luna, who is separated from her parents while being detained at the Mexican border, which is where the sketchy animation comes in. The 1950s TV clips showing the American Dream suggest that these 70-year-old images are somehow what is in the mind’s eye of 21st-century migrants. The Usher score is a continuous background entity raising and lowering tension and emotional heat. Much like his film score for Koyaanisqatsi? So it’s not really the Usher opera at all.

Poe and Glass will survive the kind of apology that this production represents. What truly bothers me is that immigrant issues are far too important to have the poor Luna incongruously riding on Poe’s coat tails. Consider, in contrast, Ted Hearne’s 2018 choral work written for The Crossing titled Animals, taking off from Donald Trump’s infamous description of migrants, “These aren’t people, these are animals.” The anti-humanitarian ruthlessness is driven home by obsessive repetition, ending with a vocal transcription of a migrant child crying out for her parents. The best part: The message was clearly delivered by fellow human beings, not by sketchy representations of them.

There are explanations aplenty among the Usher creative team as to why the opera was presented this way. But they don’t really make much sense in what appears to be the down side of creative collaboration in an age of social distance: Did anybody notice this production was going down a very deep rabbit hole? The considerable work that went into Usher would’ve been better directed at the creation of a new work. Witness Voices of Ascension with Astronautica: Voices of Women in Space, premiered Jan. 27 and available on demand. It’s a serious addition to the organization’s wide-ranging concerts of choral works and a highly successful foray into creating something new. 

The topic is female astronauts; the performers were the unaccompanied female Trio Triumphatrix (soprano Lindsay Kesselman, mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn, and contralto Kirsten Sollek) and the visuals came from NASA (whether rocket launching or footage of various space stations), masterminded by filmmaker Elena Mannes.

The female astronaut experience is explored on the most intimate terms, from flight training to tampons to toiletry, with texts taken directly from female astronauts. Individual movements were written by nine composers: Renée Favand-See, Jennifer Jolley, Elaine Lachica, Gilda Lyons, RaShonda Reeves, Kamala Sankaram, Jane Sheldon, Bora Yoon, plus Trio member Chinn. Each selected her own text. The manner of the music is surprisingly consistent, perhaps because of the distinct, specific sound and limitations of unaccompanied female trio. If you’ve heard modern scores written for the Oslo-based Trio Mediaeval, you’ll get the idea of much of what was heard here, with fluid use of tonality and harmonies that can be sweet, pungent, or anything in between. 

And before you know it, the film has glided from the exhilaration of seeing Earth from the outer space, and appreciating it anew, to the need to rescue the planet. Organically and naturally, the piece becomes a convincing, effective route into the subject of climate change.

One of the more fascinating ideas that was crystalized here: Suppose the Earth should fail and human beings develop the technology to colonize Mars. How would that work? Who would govern? Well, considering the way the majority of human beings are behaving now, would we turn that technology on ourselves to destroy what’s left of us? 

This is where opera turns into a brain-bending talking point. There is no question that war veterans need much more extensive post-discharge care. But Astronautica goes into history that’s yet to be written. And that’s something you’ll hold in the back of your mind for years.