Opera Grows in Brooklyn
03 Apr, 2009 - Linnea Leonard Kickasola
The March 20th presentation of Opera Grows in Brooklyn at Galapagos Art Space in DUMBO was well attended by a standing-room-only audience excited about seeing contemporary opera in a non-traditional space. A joint production by three young opera companies – Opera On Tap, Remarkable Theater Brigade, and American Opera Projects – the evening featured opera settings as diverse as a subway train and medieval England.
The first scene of the evening, put on by Remarkable Theater Brigade, was a twenty-minute version of Christian McLeer’s “electro-acoustical-oprusical” G Train: The Musical. In the scene, five unrelated characters are thrown together when the G train on which they are passengers stalls and they are unable to understand the garbled messages from the train conductor. The music ranged from rap, through opera, and into musical theater. Almost all the singing was accompanied by an electronic soundtrack with a heavy rhythmic beat and audio samples from the New York subway. While it was an interesting mixture of musical styles and the comic setting was familiar to anyone who spends time on New York subways, the electronic accompaniment was turned up too high, making it difficult to hear the singers very well or understand what they were singing. Most of the singing sounded decent, but the pastiche of styles did not really give the singers much opportunity to shine vocally, and the overly loud electronic accompaniment was frustrating for the listeners. Some of the more interesting musical moments included a fugue where the characters sing about subway etiquette (“to avoid people’s eyes, we all have a technique, I pretend to be asleep…to read, etc.”), but overall the quick change of musical styles felt pretty jumbled. Perhaps the full-length version of G Train: The Musical, which premiered in 2005, has a better flow. The scene was performed by Julia Amisano, Chas Elliott, Monica Harte, Kevin Misslich, David Schnell, with musical direction by composer Christian McLeer and stage direction by Monica Harte.
After an intermission for the audience to refresh their drinks at the bar, American Opera Projects took the stage to present several scenes from Act I of Jack Perla’s opera Love/Hate. This performance was presented in collaboration with Manhattan School of Music; eight MSM students sang the roles, Silas Huff conducted, Mila Henry accompanied on the piano, and Caren French directed. Love/Hate examines the blossoming love affair between a college professor and her sexually confused tech-geek boyfriend by exploring contemporary dating and mating patterns. Perla, in from San Francisco for the rehearsals and performance, seems influenced by another San Francisco composer, Jake Heggie (Dead Man Walking). One example is the musical theater influences in Love/Hate which could be heard in the singing style at times as well. The mezzo-soprano singing the character of Laura, in particular, had a good mastery of the crossover sound of singers like Audra McDonald who bridge those two musical worlds. While it was clear that many of the singers were still students, the scenes were well prepared and included some interesting directing choices. It was difficult to follow the story line from these two scenes, but they provoked interest in seeing the whole show.
Opera On Tap rounded out the evening with a contemporary exploration of a more familiar opera “librettist,” William Shakespeare. His play Cymbeline was set by composer Christopher Berg, and the two scenes presented from the opera were staged by Christopher Carter Sanderson, complete with period costumes from medieval England. The OOT cast (Matthew Curran, Erika Hennings, Jessie Hinkle, Jose Pietri-Coimbre, Jessica Miller-Rauch, Anne Ricci, and DeAndre Simmons), accompanied on the piano by the composer, were the strongest singers of the evening, and the lyricism of the score gave them real opportunity to show their vocal strengths. OOT began as a company with the goal of presenting opera as fun and appropriate entertainment for more casual venues like bars. Why should jazz and rock musicians get all the fun? Most of their shows feature themed aria and scene concerts in places like Freddy’s Bar and Backroom (Brooklyn), Barbes (Brooklyn), and the Parkside Lounge (Manhattan). They have also have done regular performances at Galapagos Art Space. While they’ve succeeded in creating a relaxed and spontaneous atmosphere where opera lovers and neophytes can kick back, have a few beers, and enjoy some good singing, as the company has grown they have begun to branch out into more structured performances like these as well.
Galapagos Art Space has only recently moved to this new location in Dumbo from their original space in Williamsburg. Driven out by rapidly rising rents, they have ended up in a larger and more exciting space in a beautiful spot right at the base of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. While their old space was known for its indoor lake in the entryway, the new space boasts ground floor seating suspended over a much larger lake of black water (dyed with India ink) that shimmers in the light and may even improve the acoustics, which were quite good. With a full bar in back, balcony seating on the second floor, and a good-sized stage, Galapagos’ new space is well suited for a variety of concerts, theater, and dance events. Most of the seating is in semi-circular banquettes, which makes it feel much more like a club, but somewhat limits the audience size.
While Opera on Tap and American Opera Project have collaborated a few times in the past, this is their first collaboration with Remarkable Theater Brigade and the evening was an exciting new level of work for these young companies. Brooklyn and the rest of the city will benefit from future collaborations like these. Check out the individual websites for upcoming shows from each company.