Cage’s Opera Potpourri: Mixed Bundles Of Hits Offered In Playful Vibe

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Bass-baritone Davóne Tines and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in Detroit Opera’s production of John Cage’s ‘Europera 4’ (Photos by Detroit Opera / Austin Richey)

DETROIT — Detroit Opera’s Yuval Sharon bravely staged John Cage’s Europeras: 3 & 4, part of the cycle of five the company’s artistic director aptly described as “part circus, part meditation,” in a production that had its premiere March 8 at Detroit’s historic Gem Theater.

In Europera 3, six singers perform arias of their choice, two pianists play opera transcriptions, and record players provide instrumental sections of recorded opera. Everything — lighting, staging, timing, order, activity — is deployed via chance by way of the I Ching, Cage’s favored aleatoric method. The stage was an 8×8 dreamscape grid upon which moments from the opera canon bloomed in a playfully chaotic, pan-tonal, 70-minute chamber opera.

Europera 4 narrows the scope to two singers, one pianist, and one vintage Victrola, applying the same chance operations over 30 minutes for what feels like a simultaneous, unaccompanied dual recital. To this mix, Sharon added dancers Biba Bell, Celia Benvenutti, and Chris Woolfolk, in keeping with Detroit Opera’s recent practice and Cage’s long association with modern dance through his creative and life partner, Merce Cunningham.

Soprano Melanie Spector, soprano Jennifer Cresswell, and dancer Chris Woolfolk in John Cage’s ‘Europera 3’

Captivating lyric soprano Jennifer Cresswell returned to Detroit Opera, applying her luscious, assertive tone to dynamic Mozart and a simmering “Habanera” with incredible power and commitment. She spent much of her stage time dropping and finding a jangling ring of keys, a torturous assignment for the wrong performer, but her fearlessly physical presence, all hunger and flirtation, proved ideal for the task. Resident artist Melanie Spector’s lyric coloratura sparkled in expressive passagework, rendered with stunning subtlety while she played volleyball with audience members and — as she sang a resplendent “Jewel Song” — cradling a beloved rifle. Soprano Kisma Jordan’s shimmering vocal depth was astonishing and satisfyingly distinct from Cresswell’s and Spector’s. Jordan’s crimson tone favored intimate renditions, as in her poignant “Porgi amor” and intense “V’adoro pupille,” which she delivered while slowly stabbing dancer Woolfolk.

The gleaming tenor of resident artist River Guard produced an effortless “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön,” charmingly sung to and about a magazine cover. The rest of his aria choices exposed the glory of his abundant instrument but resulted in a slate of unremitting romantic angst. Baritone Rolfe Dauz, whose performance in Detroit Opera’s Madame Butterfly was a production highlight, returned as a resident artist. His warm, flexible singing made for rewarding listening, while his inviting playfulness onstage perfectly suited the précis. Entering in a glittering bullfighter costume, he sang an exuberant Papageno; his eventual charismatic Toreador was rendered in Renaissance garb. Meanwhile, baritone Robert Wesley Mason’s sound — flint-hard one moment, voluptuous the next — and searing dramatic intensity provided an ideal foil for Dauz. His bright wit was similarly evident when he took a stage lap on a bicycle and punctuated his Billy Budd with a billy club.

Soprano Melanie Spector, dancer Biba Bell, and baritone Rolf Dauz in John Cage’s ‘Europera 3’

Europera 4 offers a sonic space comparatively less cluttered than Europera 3; its single piano and Victrola left room for headliners Susan Graham and Davóne Tines to more gratifyingly unfurl their accomplished vocal artistry. Graham’s sumptuous “Ah! je vais mourir” kicked off a masterful collection of greatest hits whose variety confirmed her status as one of our great mezzo-sopranos, including a crystalline “Ombra mai fu” that began on a hovering, fragile major ninth over bass-baritone Tines’ held pitch. She delivered a haunting “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” perversely accentuated by a badminton racket serve, and finally sprang to her feet as Cherubino, singing with visceral urgency and a confident sense of play. Graham’s comprehensive opera chops were perhaps too much for Tines, last seen in Detroit as Malcolm X, whose musical and acting choices were narrow in comparison, even as he matched Graham in volume and resonance. Nevertheless, Tines offered up the gorgeous richness he has become known for, with astounding diction and majestic poise.

To remain in their key and meter without audible accompaniment, amid conflicting sounds, the singers conjured their orchestration in their minds’ ears with fierce focus. That work meant that there was far more music being heard by the singers, as imagined music, than the wide array of sounds perceived by the audience. At the same time, it was touching that the singers didn’t always stay perfectly in their key, (likely inadvertently) adjusting their keys or pitches to get along better with clashing material. There was poetry in that drift, as the music around them seduced them into consonance. These beautiful “mistakes” weren’t faults but instances of musicians being expert listeners, being in love with sound, and demonstrating humanity’s urge to find common ground.

Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, dancer Biba Bell, bass- baritone Davóne Tines, and soprano Melanie Spector in John Cage’s ‘Europera 4’

Despite Cage creating a more even listening playing field by upending operatic norms and forms, Europeras 3&4 proved unsatisfying for at least one opera newbie, who confided after the show that she felt excluded by the experience. While some assured her the piece was for “opera nerds,” that cruel irony bothered me. Cage can’t have wanted to ostracize naive listeners and reward opera expertise; his entire oeuvre eschews that attitude. On the other hand, do today’s virtuosic listeners even perceive Cage’s cacophony as chaos anymore? As we become adept at splitting our attention between phone and screen, does our newfound capacity for parsing the simultaneous components of these operas come at the cost of experiencing Cage’s sonic juxtapositions with their originally hoped-for delight?

With Europeras 3&4, Sharon educates his audience about opera’s avant-garde edge, brings the new and experimental music crowd into the Detroit Opera fold, and directly confronts big questions about what opera is, what and who it’s for, and what canon means — questions his season and directing choices began to answer with his first production here, 2020’s parking garage-sited Twilight: Gods. His answers are putting him, and Detroit Opera, at the forefront of 21st century opera.

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Jennifer Goltz-Taylor
Jennifer Goltz-Taylor is a soprano, music theorist, music educator, and multi-genre multi-instrumentalist. She has performed new chamber music and opera in Europe and across the US as a founding member of the new music ensemble Brave New Works and with Milwaukee-based Present Music, the Muse Ensemble, and Klangforum Wien, among many others, and can be heard on Naxos, Albany, Centaur, MSR Classics, AMP, and Blue Griffin Records. Her recording of Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire and Brettl-lieder (MSR) with the Los Angeles-based ensemble Inauthentica was hailed by Gramophone as "captivating" and "brilliant… a voice full of subtle allure and sprightly energy." She fronted the popular Klezmer band Into the Freylakh in the early 2000s and now appears with an accordion and a mic with the band Klezmephonic. In addition to degrees in Vocal Performance, Jennifer holds a Ph.D. in Music Theory from the University of Michigan; she has published on narrative in film scores and the history of Sprechstimme, and served as a reviewer for Opera News until 2023. She headed the voice area and taught music theory at Scripps College in southern California and now teaches voice, music theory, and courses about music within the humanities at the University of Michigan Residential College.