Smart Trifecta Of Fresh Operas Takes The Stage (Make That Parking Lot)

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Markel Reed as James Baldwin and Jonathan Johnson as William F. Buckley Jr. in Damien Sneed and Karen Chilton’s ‘The Tongue & The Lash.’ (Photos © Eric Woolsey)

ST. LOUIS — The pandemic wiped out the 2020 season of Opera Theatre of St. Louis (OTSL), but they’re back in business this year. There are fewer performances, fewer seats, none of the operas run over 75 minutes, and it all happens on a newly constructed stage taking up what is usually the company’s main parking lot.

With highly successful productions of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, William Grant Still’s Highway 1, U.S.A, and Poulenc’s La voix humaine already up and running, OTSL seems to have saved the best for last with the New Works, Bold Voices Lab, which opened on June 10.

Running around 20 minutes each, the three operas that make up the New Works, Bold Voices Lab are all radically different in style, both in their music and libretti, and yet they complement each other quite neatly. Stage director James Robinson describes the combination as “incredibly rich and varied” — a statement with which I heartily concur.

The evening opens with On the Edge, with music by Laura Karpman and a libretto by Taura Stinson, both of whom have extensive credits outside of the opera house-concert hall orbit. Together, they have created a serio-comic reflection on the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic from the points of view of a single mom (in April 2020), a mother working from home (May), and, finally, a classic nuclear family in June trying to find hope amid the worsening pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and the increasing miasma of violence and authoritarianism unfolding on their TV.

The first two scenes are fast-paced and witty, echoing (but never imitating) influences as diverse as Stephen Sondheim and Philip Glass. You can hear the former in Stinson’s clever lyrics and the latter at the end of the first scene, in which Single Mom’s growing frustration, the demands of children Kadin and Kyra, and homework reminders from their teacher explode in a chorus of wildly overlapping vocal lines that coalesce in the refrain “We are stuck / in the muck / What the…”.

No, the last word isn’t actually sung. It’s funnier that way.

The second scene opens with a simple canon on the word “Zoom” sung by Mama, Mommy, and Son 1 to express the daily routine of lockdown and a life lived online. Other phrases are added (“Getting fat, fat,” “It goes on and on”), and the vocal polyphony becomes more complex as Grandma starts to chime in with a confused mix of fact and fancy about the pandemic. The scene slowly winds down with a return to the original canon, suggesting that nothing will change anytime soon.

The shift in tone that comes with the more anguished final scene seems odd until one reflects on the fact that the outrage at Floyd’s murder was amplified by “[a] pandemic, and a captive audience, / For the world to catch a glimpse of our pain.” And the combination of pain, hope, and determination expressed in the closing quartet is both moving and inspiring.

Michael Day as Captain Collins, Jarrett Porter as Neil Armstrong, and Monica Dewey as Queen Elizabeth in Steve Mackey and Rinde Eckert’s ‘Moon Tea.’

The 13 named roles in the three scenes are played by the impressively versatile quartet of soprano Monica Dewey, mezzo-soprano Mack Wolz, mezzosoprano Melody Wilson, and bass-baritone Calvin Griffin. Wilson is a particularly familiar face on the local scene, having appeared with both OTSL and Union Avenue Opera over the years.

The mood shifts towards Monty Pythonesque surrealism in the second opera, Moon Tea, with music by Steven Mackey and a libretto by Rinde Eckert.

Moon Tea is a fanciful and slightly loopy gloss on a real-world event: an awkward 1969 meeting of Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, and Apollo 13 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, along with their wives. The Queen was unenthusiastic about the project, Armstrong was suffering from a terrible cold, and Collins (as Aldrin would reveal many years later on Twitter) “almost fell down the stairs trying not to turn his back” on the Queen.

The farcical nature of the event appealed greatly to Mackey. “I’m a sucker for fish-out-of-water stories,” he confesses in comments on the OTSL YouTube channel. “The music just flowed out.”

Mackey’s musical toolbox is as diverse as Karpman’s, although in his case that diversity stems from a background in rock and pop. He and the multi-talented Eckert have teamed up on many projects in the past, so both the music and words of Moon Tea seamlessly unite. The result is a whimsical sonic world that combines unorthodox elements such as microtonality and oddball percussion instruments like the flexatone with more conventional techniques minus any hint of a conflict.

Ingenious touches include the ragged sneeze rhythms that repeatedly interrupt Neil Armstrong’s vocal line, the slightly demented, not-quite-a-waltz theme that serves as the basis for the dreamlike scene in which Queen Elizabeth imagines herself Queen of the Moon, and the elaborate, rapid-fire patter song that illustrates Michael Collins’ awkwardness.

That said, I found Moon Tea amusing but not particularly involving. The opera is facile and often brilliant, with plenty of playful stage business and clever use of digital animation, but at around 20 minutes it’s as long as it needs to be.

Calvin Griffin, Monica Dewey, Mack Wolz, and Melody Wilson as Kyra/Son/Son in Laura Karpman and Taura Stinson’s ‘On the Edge.’

Still, congratulations are due the performers, all of whom fully inhabit their roles. Monica Dewey is a properly regal Queen Elizabeth, Melody Wilson a cheerfully celebrity-obsessed Janet Armstrong, and tenor Jonathan Johnson a pleasantly fatuous Prince Philip. Tenor Michael Day rattles off his tricky patter song with the assurance of a latter-day John Reed, and Jarrett Porter’s weighty baritone lends dignity to the afflicted Neil Armstrong.

The program ends with the most emotionally powerful opera of the trio, The Tongue and the Lash, with music by Damien Sneed and libretto by Karen Chilton. A singer, instrumentalist, and conductor as well as a composer, Sneed has a wide-ranging background, while Chilton is an actor and writer as well as a classical pianist. The result of their collaboration packs a serious punch.

Like Moon Tea, The Tongue and the Lash is inspired by a real event: the 1965 debate between author and activist James Baldwin and conservative intellectual gadfly William F. Buckley, Jr. on the premise that “the American dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” It is, perhaps, a sign of the times that the vote declaring Baldwin the winner was 544 to 164 instead of, say, 708 to zero.

Set in the Cambridge University Union after the verdict has been rendered, the opera imagines what a post-debate conversation between Baldwin and Buckley might have been. Baldwin is portrayed with vocal power and gravitas by baritone Markel Reed. In long vocal lines that carry the weight of authority and conviction, he declares that “I have made plain my case” but then asks, “What victory is there / When all our suffering and injustice is laid bare?” When, at one point, Baldwin’s music turns into a passionate gospel hymn on the words “Time is all we’ve got,” the effect is electrifying.

The contrast with Buckley’s music could hardly be stronger. Where Baldwin glides, Buckley skitters. His vocal line dances around to a rapid, slightly discordant accompaniment in a strikingly effective musical equivalent of the real Buckley’s snarky persona. Jonathan Johnson perfectly captures Buckley’s trademark supercilious attitude and deftly negotiates the character’s sometimes florid passages.

All three operas share the same eight-piece ensemble of St. Louis Symphony Orchestra members: first violinist Xiaoxiao Qiang, second violinist Janet Carpenter, violist Leonid Plashinov-Johnson, cellist Elizabeth Chung, and double bassist Erik Harris. The sizable percussion battery consists of Shannon Wood on timpani with Alan Stewart and Thomas Stubbs on everything else. Composer-conductor Daniela Candillari, who leads a special orchestra concert on June 24, is on the podium. Their performance of this assortment of new and challenging music was a joy to witness.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ exceptional 2021 season continues through June 20. For more information, visit the company’s web site.