Opera Review: Rising stars highlight Opera Theatre's 'New Works Collective'
When Opera Theatre of St. Louis (OSTSL) concluded its al fresco 2021 season with the “New Works, Bold Voices Lab,” I opined that they had saved the best for last. The three 20-minute operas by emerging young composers and librettists were a reminder that opera is alive and well and ready for the next generation.
The project was back again this year. Retitled the “New Works Collective,” it ran for three performances March 16 through 18 at the Berges Theatre at COCA. OTSL promotional material described it as “three genre-bending world premiere operas by BIPOC creators” by “multi-disciplinary artists who are new, fresh, and exciting voices in opera.” That they certainly were, but they were also richly imagined, skillfully performed, and hugely entertaining. If this is what the future of opera will look like, all I can say is “bring it on!”
Photo: Phillip Hamer
The program opened with “Cook Shack,” with music by Del’Shawn Taylor and a libretto by Samiya Bashir. It’s the story of 11-year-old Dayo (soprano Flora Hawk. Bullied by her schoolmates because of her insecurity, she takes refuge in an exhibit at the St. Louis Griot Museum of Black History on black female “Superheroes of Invention”: entrepreneur (and the first Black woman millionaire) Annie Turnbo Malone (soprano Ardeen Pierre), nurse and inventor of the first closed-circuit TV security system Marie Van Brittan Brown (soprano Kimwana Doner-Chandler), and ophthalmologist Dr. Patricia E. Bath (mezzo Olivia Johnson), whose patented Laserphaco Probe was a major advance in cataract surgery.
As she reads about their remarkable lives, their waxwork figures come to life and tell their stories. Their tales of triumph against the odds give Dayo the strength to stand up and recognize her own inner superhero.
Pierre, Doner-Chandler, and Johnson were all vocal powerhouses who imbued their characters with passion, assurance, and in Doner-Chandler’s case, righteous anger at injustice. Hawk made Dayo’s journey from self-effacement to self-assurance completely credible and was quite convincing as a gawky preteen.
Taylor has provided his three protagonists with music that reflects their personalities and their times. It’s not always a good fit for the realistic speech rhythms of Bashir’s libretto, though, making comprehension of that libretto difficult. Projected text would have been a big help here.
Up next was “Slanted: An American Rock Opera” by musician-activists Simon Tam and Joe X. Jiang, founding members of the Asian-American rock band The Slants. The opera is a somewhat surreal depiction of the 2017 Supreme Court case Matal v. Tam in which, without a trace of irony, Tam and his band were accused of engaging in hate speech by using an anti-Asian racial slur as the name for their band. Tam maintained that, as an Asian man himself, he had every right to re-appropriate the word and so defuse it.
|Slanted: An American Rock Opera
Photo: Phillip Hamer
The opera follows the simple “ABA” structure of a standard pop song, with opening and closing courtroom arguments bracketing “That’s Not Me,” a long aria in which Tam (tenor Matthew Pearce) laments the way he and his band are being misrepresented by strangers. “Isn’t it just pure irony,” he sings, "That in this court, I’m fighting for freedom of speech / but no / no one can hear me.” Pearce’s clarion-clear head voice added a poignant edge to the character’s plea.
The return to the courtroom brings a repeat of the same rigid, declamatory rhymed couplets from the first section, punctuated by chants of “Free Speech, Hate Speech” by members of the court. Bass-baritone Keith Klein was an imposing Solicitor General here in the opening scene, potently matched by Ardeen Pierre as Tam’s lawyer.
Suddenly Ruth Bader Ginsburg (soprano Dorothy Gal), who has been seated upstage with her back to the audience, swings around. Illuminated by a spotlight, she begins a tender, lyrical solo. “Does it not matter,” Ginsburg asks, “that they’re taking the sting from the word?... If you think that their speech is a problem, censorship is not the cure.” It was your classic Star Turn, and beautifully sung.
It soon turns into a duet with Tam (“I think I’m in love with a supreme court justice”), which builds into a massive if somewhat didactic hymn in praise of free speech and equal justice: “The constitution protects us all / It doesn’t matter who wrote it.” Finally, Tam is left alone on the stage for a last soliloquy that is both a warning and call to action: “If you only leave your rights to nine / Our books and bodies are on the line.”
Ultimately “Slanted” is agitprop but, as Marc Blitzstein proved decades ago, agitprop can make for powerful musical theatre. It certainly did with “Slanted,” and its message is one that needs to be heard.
The evening concluded with what was, for my money, the strongest of the three works: “Madison Lodge” by St. Louis’s own Tre’von Griffith. Set in 1928 Harlem—the time of the Harlem Renaissance—the story is best summarized by quoting from the program:
“X has just arrived in Harlem after a long trip from their home state of Alabama. When they reach their sister’s house, X explains that they left to find freedom and live their truth. Sister assures X that Harlem is the perfect place to realize those dreams, and hands X an address.”
That address turns out to be the titular Madison Lodge, a “modest-but-grand” drag club where preparations are underway for a masquerade ball. There X (Namarea Randolph-Yosea) meets the flamboyant Club Owner (a bravura performance by baritone Kyle Oliver) and finds out that Sister (Olivia Johnson) is the Drag King, complete with a spectacular white tux, top hat, and cane.
Photo: Phillip Hamer
The club is raided by bigoted cops before the show gets off the ground and Sister is arrested. The experience inspires X to find their own identity, and when Sister is finally bailed out by the Club Owner, they discover X performing in a sparkling white gown that parallels Sister’s own outfit. X has embraced Harlem “and even more importantly, has embraced themselves.”
Of the three operas, “Madison Lodge” is the one that most cries out for expansion into a full-length work. The characters have a richness and back stories that could easily be fleshed out in more detail. And it addresses themes of racial and gender identity that are both timely and completely relevant to the Harlem of a century ago. “Black queer folx have felt unseen, unheard, and unprotected,” writes Griffith. “I feel very fortunate to collaborate with our brilliant cast…to share this beautiful story with you.”
How right he is. Randolph-Yosea’s transformation from conflicted teen to confident drag queen was nicely done, and Johnson was a strong, confident presence as Sister. The ensemble of performers from the other two operas was solid dramatically and vocally, while Drag Artists Teonia M. Steele and Vontez Williams added a touch of sinuous authenticity. Congratulations to all.
Darwin Aquino conducted the small but versatile orchestra with assurance and Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj’s direction kept the action clear and focused. Tom Ontiveros’s video designs did a splendid job setting the scenes, although there were times at which the flood of moving images in the background distracted from the drama more than it amplified it.
The same was true of dancers Ka Thomas and Kelly Marsh. Their graceful presence on stage often added visual emphasis but at other times just pulled focus from the singers. Minor quibbles, these, which is why they’re at the end of the review.
Finally: if OTSL plans to present additional shows at the Berges, it should seriously consider dispensing with wireless body microphones and adding projected text capability. It’s even possible that dispensing with the mics might be enough. The kind of singers OTSL employs don’t need them and they just add distortion.
Performances of the “New Works Collective” are history now, of course, but I expect to see more from the talented and innovative team responsible for these three operas. Hope for the future often seems elusive these days. But for a couple of hours last Friday, at least, it felt like it just might be possible.
Opera Theatre’s 2023 season kicks off with "The Road to Freedom," special concert that celebrates the 61st anniversary of the Freedom Riders, followed by a new production of Joplin’s “Treemonisha” on May 20. For season information, visit the OTSL web site.