Three Virgins Walk Into A Bar…Er, Throne Room, In Opera With A Unicorn

A royal test: Briar (Christiana Cole), Fleur (Brett Umlauf), and Rue (Hirona Amamiya) are ordered to capture a unicorn. (Photos by Rob Davidson for Miller Theatre at Columbia University)

NEW YORK — Kate Soper’s fresh and witty new chamber opera, The Hunt, uses a medieval legend, tweaked with 21st-century detail, to pose questions about women’s place in a patriarchal world. Composed for three sopranos, violin, ukulele, and electronic sounds, it blends ancient and contemporary musical styles into a personal and accessible score. The third production of Miller Theatre’s Chamber Opera Arts Initiative, The Hunt premiered on Oct. 12.

The set-up: A king seeks to hire three virgins to lure a unicorn to his kingdom; this mythical creature, whose capture would enhance the glory of the court, can only be tamed by a pure maiden. The successful applicants — we watch them create their online application reels as the show opens — are a perky social media influencer, Fleur; a subversive librarian, Briar; and bad girl Rue, adept with wild plants. Daily from a clearing outside the castle, Fleur streams a cheerful online update (“I have a good feeling about Day 43…,” sings Fleur).

Modern maidens on the case include Fleur (Umlauf), a social media influencer; Briar (Cole), a bookish subersive; and Rue (Amamiya), a plant-loving ‘bad girl.’

As the maidens wait for a unicorn to show up, they pass the long days singing about unicorns, discussing the weather, and pondering the riddles sent to Rue by an amorous stable boy. Periodic messages from the king remind them of their mission, and of his growing impatience. The monotony of waiting grows wearying, and soon enough, the king begins to question their purported purity. After false alarms and months of waiting, a unicorn does appear, but the creature escapes, disappointing both the court and the women. The apparent futility of their task, as well as the bizarre notion of their unique value as virgins, trigger major soul searching, transforming the women’s relationships with their job and with one another as their situation continues with no end in sight.

Minimal multi-purpose stage props, a small hatch in the wall, and an abundance of projections create the magical spaces in which Fleur, Briar, and Rue undertake their mission.

The production makes a virtue of minimal staging. For the main setting, a forest clearing outside a castle, a wall of tall gray panels backs the stage. Two round stools and a small meal hatch that opens from one panel are the only furnishings in the nearly empty space. Later in the story, the panels open to offer shelter in the castle. Projections help to delineate the different kinds of musical numbers: Unicorn songs are illustrated with background images from the Unicorn Tapestries; messages from the king, chanted by the women over an electronic tone, appear in Gothic script projected on the wall, like pages from a medieval manuscript.

Composer Kate Soper (Maggie Shannon)

Later, vines draped on the walls suggest the passage of time, and vividly saturated lighting indicates dramatic events like the appearance of the unicorn and the self-realization of the women. (The team behind this effort includes Ashley Kelly Tata, director; Mila Henry, music director; Annie Holt, dramaturg; Aoshuang Zhang, sets; Masha Tsimring, lighting; Terese Wadden, costumes; Camilla Tassi, projections; Elliot Yokum, sound design.)

Soper’s libretto is a deft mix of sitcom-worthy modern dialogue, adaptations of medieval ditties, and ballads (“entr’actes”) drawn from modern, medieval, and Romantic poetry by writers including Hildegard of Bingen, H.D. (pen name of Hilda Doolittle), Christina Rossetti, and several anonymous medieval songsmiths.

A singer, writer and composer, Soper has a flair for using the voice as both a musical instrument and a vehicle for words. Her musical language is fresh, largely upbeat, and fundamentally tonal, but she liberally seasons the Andrews Sisters harmonies of the ensembles with enough dissonance to suggest uncertainty, even danger. In the solo entr’actes — let’s call them arias — words follow natural language rhythms in musical lines with lyric sweep and melodic contours that track with the emotions.

Musical forms reflect the emotional weight of the texts: unison or choral recitative for the ritual daily livestream updates, bouncy unicorn songs with a folk-like character, and more lyrical ballad-like solos expressing each character’s inner emotions. At several points, the women break into chaotic babbling, and in one episode, under the influence of belladonna, their song devolves into non-verbal, non-musical  vocalizing.

Brett Umlauf (Fleur) and Christiana Cole (Briar).

Ukulele and violin provide a surprising amount of textural variety as accompaniment. In the final entr’acte, the three voices entwine in voluptuous counterpoint, supported by uke and violin. Soper’s diverse trio of sopranos were wonderfully in tune with one another and well suited to their vocal and theatrical tasks.

Brett Umlauf (Fleur), after years of singing primarily baroque music, has turned her attention to researching and performing music of religious sisters across the globe. Her bright soprano had a Broadway edge when she sang the daily updates, but she sang sweetly in her entr’acte. Christiana Cole (Briar), for whom opera studies led to performances of new music and musical theater, showed the greatest character development as the story progressed. Her mellow love entr’acte would have melted the hardest heart, and her ukulele accompaniment anchored much of the score.

Hirona Amamiya (Rue).

Hirona Amamiya (Rue), with degrees in violin and vocal performance and the most conventional operatic resume, had crystalline coloratura and rich resonance at the bottom of her range, even while accompanying herself on the violin.

One nagging problem was text comprehensibility. Spoken dialogue and declaimed text, in unison or in harmony, were easy to understand, but the lovely poetry of the entr’actes was virtually unintelligible, possibly because of amplification imbalances (all the singers were miked, as were the ukulele and violin). Projected titles, now almost a necessity in works with lyrics, would have remedied this. The feeling that the 90-minute piece was about 15 minutes too long would likely have been solved with easier understanding of the text.

Overall, this was an appealing and provocative evening. Soper’s score and libretto function on several levels, offering pleasures for the eye and ear and ample food for thought. I hope it receives further productions (with surtitles) sooner rather than later.

The Hunt received two performances at Miller Theater, on Oct. 12 and 14.

To watch a video of Soper’s first opera, Here Be Sirens, go here.

Soper’s 2017 Pulitzer-finalist chamber opera, Ipsa Dixit, will receive a new production at Long Beach Opera June 2-9, 2024. For information, go here.

The opera’s magical effects reflected the work of Aoshuang Zhang, sets; Masha Tsimring, lighting; Terese Wadden, costumes; Camilla Tassi, projections; and Elliot Yokum, sound design.