NEW YORK — With tropical storm Ophelia ready to roll over the city, On Site Opera was lucky to squeeze in its Sept. 22 outdoor performance of Song of the Nightingale in the public space between the two office-and-shopping buildings of Manhattan West. Indeed, two performances planned for the next day had already been canceled. Eyes glanced nervously at the cloudy sky as 80 or so New Yorkers, including several young children, settled into rows of folding chairs arranged in concentric circles.
The 60-minute world-premiere opera, a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Nightingale” by composer Lisa DeSpain and librettist Melisa Tien, had opened the first weekend of September for three performances at Brooklyn Commons, another space run by the co-producer, Brookfield Properties, before moving to Manhattan West (Sept. 21-23). It will relocate Sept. 28-30 to the charming waterfront Winter Garden at Brookfield Place in Lower Manhattan.
These three pleasant venues are among the least surprising ever chosen by On Site Opera. Their past endeavors have included Scott Warrender’s Das Barbecü at the Hill Country Barbeque Market on West 26th St. (2020, before Covid struck); The Road We Came, a self-guided musical walking tour of African American history in New York City (2021); and Amahl and the Night Visitors at Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen (2022). Unlike those other examples, Song of the Nightingale’s venues are in no way related to the opera itself.
DeSpain and Tien have updated the classic story in significant ways, refocusing its message. Whereas Anderson indulged in the European fashion for exoticism by setting his tale in a long-past Empire of China, this new version is modern and vaguely Western but could represent any place where there are rich people. Here, the main character is a Collector in a hot-pink pantsuit (costumes by Kara Harmon), who wants something new to collect. Her Curator suggests birds, and off they go to find the best ones.
Immediately the Curator has doubts about whether this is, in fact, “fair to the animals.” But the Collector, oozing privilege, claims that “everything wants to be seen,” and she’s doing them a favor. It’s her right, she feels, and shouldn’t be prohibited; in Tien’s witty words, “Collective hoarding is only rewarding when done without oversight.”
At the surface level, the opera eloquently illustrates that it is irresponsible to capture birds (the nightingale, once she agrees to go with the collector, is paralyzed by depression and can only sing a dirge). It’s easy to apply the warning to larger, more serious, issues: museums that appropriate other cultures’ artifacts, or big-game hunters who kill just to put a head on their wall. Overall, the new storyline worked well, particularly when the Curator realized that he, too, was a kind of prisoner to the Collector.
The Nightingale and her woodland friends, the Frog and the Cow (why was there a cow living in the woods?), were a constant delight as they played together, quarreled over whether the bird should leave, missed each other terribly, and then found joy in being reunited. In the emotional sections, DeSpain’s ensemble writing was rich and moving, supported with complex counterpoint from members of the American Modern Ensemble — keyboard, clarinet, flute, violin, cello — conducted by Cris Frisco. (The music direction was by Geoffrey McDonald, who conducted the Brooklyn performances; Scott Ethier is credited with the orchestrations.) There were moments that evoked Brahms or Mahler, and many others that were reminiscent of Sondheim. For passages of humor or high energy, DeSpain switched to an angular, percussive style that was dramatically effective and never inaccessible.
Soprano Hannah Cho’s Nightingale inspired empathy with her lyrical melodies and contemplative manner. A few breaks in her voice sounded like the result of autumn allergies. Jonathan R. Green, understudying Eliam Ramos as the Cow, seemed to be suffering even more severe vocal problems, but his stage presence was so engaging as he cavorted around the space that it didn’t matter much. As the Collector, Chrystal E. Williams used her powerful mezzo-soprano to command whatever she wanted and convince everyone that she deserved it, while tenor Bernard Holcomb’s Curator had a purity of voice that matched his character’s thoughtfulness.
The cast highlight was soprano Nicole Haslett, who played the Frog (and briefly the jewel-encrusted Mechanical Nightingale, rolled in on a dolly to sing one line over and over robotically). Haslett, dressed in brownish-green hiking clothes, never lost her clarity of tone or diction, despite facing many repeating, upward vocal leaps during which she was expected to physically hop (stage direction by Katherine M. Carter). With deadpan delivery, she dropped some succinct truth bombs that cracked up the audience, such as “Humans like to accumulate junk.”
In an effort to mask the constant traffic noise surrounding Manhattan West, but perhaps not taking into account the canyon-like effect of being between two skyscrapers, sound designer Beth Lake over-miked the voices and instruments. Still, the sound quality was clear and nuanced throughout, never distorted, even if it left one with a mild case of rock-concert deafness. The lighting by Tess James relied on stadium-style towers that bathed the cobbled plaza in changing intensities of white, retaining audience focus on the action despite busy Tenth Avenue being mere steps away.
Rather than deal with the logistics of projecting supertitles, On Site had a staff member walk among the audience just before the opera, holding up a QR code that led to the libretto online. Afterwards, at a nearby tent, representatives from Citizens Food Hall, located in Manhattan West, sold dinner boxes to hungry families. After an enchanting show, who doesn’t want falafel? And having witnessed a free public offering like this, who can truly say they don’t love opera?
Performances of Song of the Nightingale at Brookfield Place (Sept. 28-30) are free and do not require tickets. For information, go here.