Theatre Reviews
L-R: Meroé Khalia Adeeb and John Godhard Mburu in "Unbroken." Photo by Phillip Hamer.

Last week (March 16–18) Opera Theatre of St. Louis unveiled its second annual New Works Collective (NWC).  This year the composer/librettist teams that created the three brand-new 20-minute operas were selected from a pool of 130 applicants by a panel of St. Louis artists, advocates, and community leaders.

We were there on opening night and just like last year I was struck by the originality, theatricality, and musical appeal of these three newly minted one-acts as well as by the high quality of the singing and acting. Five of the eight members of the ensemble were new to me and all were excellent in their roles.

The cast of "Unbroken"
Photo: Phillip Hamer

The program opened with the most conventional of the three, “Unbroken,” with music by Ronald Maurice and libretto by J. Mae Barizo. It’s the story of Grace (Meroé Kahalia Adeeb) and her family coping with her impending death from lung cancer. It hits her oldest son Ezra (John Godhard Mburu) especially hard, since he’s not entirely prepared to carry on as head of the family and to keep their traditions unbroken.

“I don’t know nothing,” he laments. “How to cook / How to carve / How to live / How to love.” But Grace has faith in him (“You know, I taught you”), and everyone in the family has faith in God, and that, along with their mutual love and support for each other, gives them the resilience they need.

All of that was beautifully encapsulated in Scene 2, in which a heartfelt acappella prayer of thanks and hope for “better days” precedes Thanksgiving dinner. There’s just something about hearing seven voices singing complex and pitch-perfect harmony softly but intently that is irresistible.

The second opera, “Mechanisms,” is the most adventurous of the three, with a more “modernist” score by J. E. Hernández and a linguistically complex libretto by Marianna Mott Newirth. Subtitled “A Chamber Opera Study on Neurodiversity,” it centers on Roe (Helen Zhibing Huang), an eleven year old [I thought she was ten]girl whose multiple learning disabilities make life difficult for her family.

L-R: Krysty Swann, Aaren Rivard, Helen Zhibing Huang,
Maria Consamus in "Mechanisms"
Photo: Phillip Hamer

The script briefly shows us her dyspraxia (movement and coordination issues), dysgraphia (difficulty writing), and dyslexia (difficulty reading), but the emphasis is on her synesthesia (seeing colors when, for example, you see shapes or hear music).  Roe experiences the world in general and numbers in particular in terms of colors.  She understands the arithmetic but her need to communicate in terms of color means that she’s failing fifth grade math.. That worries her math teacher father Dean (Aaren Rivard), frightens her mother Lori (Maria Consamus), and angers her teacher Mrs. Waldman (Krysty Swann), who sees Roe as a discipline problem.

The libretto showed how baffling the “normal” world is for her in an unnerving scene set in Mrs. Waldman’s class. The other students sing aggressive nonsense (“Hack–crack / I wanna snack / Backpack / Flapjack / Hackattack”), Mrs. Waldman rattles off numbers too rapidly for Roe to translate them into colors, and Roe finally collapses to the floor as the other students taunt her.

Lighting Designer John Alexander and Video Designer David Murakami did a superb job of letting us see the world as Roe does. When we were in the neurotypical world, everything was in black and white, but when the POV shifted to Roe, the stage came alive with color. In the end, Dean and Lori begin to understand Roe’s world while Roe gains confidence in her ability to navigate theirs. “Color speaks,” she sings happily. “Color teaches. Color has acuity. This is how I know!”

Soprano Helen Zhibing Huang, who did such fine work in OTSL’s “Gianni Schicchi” and “Center Stage Showcase” in 2021, turned in a virtuoso performance in the very demanding role of Roe. She made it easy to suspend disbelief and think of her as a small child.

“Mechanisms” was a work stuffed so full of ideas that it cried out for expansion beyond its 20 minutes. I can easily see it becoming the basis for a full-length work that would allow the relationships between Roe, her family, and the neurotypical world room to be explored in more depth.

L-R: Krysty Swann, Meroé Khalia Adeeb in "On My Mind"
Photo: Phillip Hamer

The evening concluded with the only real comedy of the three, “On My Mind,” with music by Jasmine Arielle Barnes and libretto by Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton. Written in a style reminiscent of contemporary, post-Sondheim musical theatre, it’s the tale of composer Melodee (Adeeb) and poet Lyric (Swann).

They’re black women trying to make it in a field in which they find themselves seriously marginalized. During a professional conference, they also find themselves stereotyped by comically clueless fellow attendees.

Then their eyes meet “across a crowded room,” they instantly bond, and friendship blooms. “Maybe,” they sing in a final duet, “real friends can come after thirty. Maybe sisters just wait till you’re worthy. Maybe love just needs to make its time.”

Stage direction by Kimille Howard was perfection and Darwin Aquino led the small orchestra in exceptional performances of three very different scores.

My only complaint is that OTSL decided not to use projected text, even though the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center has that capability. The tendency of classical trained singers to hit their consonants less clearly as one would like made many of the lyrics incomprehensible, even with story synopses in the program for reference. If it hadn’t been for the librettos that came with my press kit, I would have been lost. Which, based on some conversations I overheard in the lobby, many audience members clearly were.

Once again, OTSL has demonstrated that opera is alive and well in the hands of a new generation of creators. Hope for the future often seems elusive these days. But for a couple of hours on Thursday, at least, it felt like it just might be possible.

Meanwhile, OTSL has a cornucopia of events coming in the St. Louis area, culimating in the opening of the 2024 season on May 25 with Rossini's "The Barber of Seville." More information is available at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis web site.

Related Articles

Sign Up for KDHX Airwaves newsletter