Before it's gone: gems out of Opera Theatre of St. LouisReview
These days, small wins are worth a lot — and I count it as a small win that I can watch Opera Theatre of St. Louis’s 2021 Outdoor Festival from way up here in Canada.
The Festival, which includes six performance events from OTSL’s 2021 season, is available to stream through September 30, and I’m officially recommending it. It’s a great mix of standards (Gianni Schicchi), near-standards (La voix humaine), rarities (Highway 1, U.S.A.), and world premieres (New Works, Bold Voices Lab).
If I’m to pick a favourite, I’m torn between the three actually fantastic new operas in the New Works showcase, and the 1940s gem by William Grant Still, Highway 1, U.S.A. Both productions fit perfectly with OTSL’s mission to champion new works and be a part of opera’s future; I love when a great cause comes with great discoveries, too.
Highway 1, U.S.A. draws us in with its excellent cast, headlined by baritone Will Liverman and soprano Nicole Cabell. Right away I was pulled into the story, which as far as opera plots go, starts off fairly conflict-free; usually when I’m pulled in, it’s because of the artists. Liverman and Cabell show a natural warmth for each other as Bob and Mary; they play a married couple who love and respect each other, and Mary shows her love by setting high standards for Bob and his troubled brother, Nate (Christian Mark Gibbs).
Still’s score is gorgeous, a mix of luscious sounds and matter-of-fact text setting. Liverman shines in his heroic top range, delivering crisp English text that sounds easy; Cabell shows a thousand colours with her voice, joking and pleading and loving with her soprano. And interestingly, there’s a clear distinction between Liverman’s baritone and Christian Mark Gibbs as Nate.
The production by Ron Himes works for me. It’s a fantastic show of 60s fashion, with great hats and fun florals and bright shoes. And really, who doesn’t love gazing over every detail of a busy kitchen, filled with wallpaper and cafe curtains? Just like Still’s score, Himes stays out of the way of this story, letting it tumble forward with natural ease.
Highway 1, U.S.A. sits beautifully in the American operatic canon. It nods to its time, with the music leaning toward the sounds of Richard Rogers and George Gershwin, but boasts some fantastic ensemble singing and an earthy approach to musical storytelling. I’m so thrilled that OTSL put this up. It should go elsewhere, quickly.
Among the more standard fare are Puccini’s only comedy, Gianni Schicchi, and Poulenc’s now-ubiquitous one-woman-opera, La voix humaine. The Schicchi, directed by Seán Curran, is everything you want in that show: excellent ensemble work and busy comedic scenes that border on campy, and show-stopping singing. Joshua Blue is a standout as Rinuccio; with the ringing colours in his voice, he’s no doubt one to watch.
The Voix humaine is also sort of everything we want in Poulenc’s opera, though it’s arguably harder to pin down what a “traditional” Voix humaine would look like. In my opinion, it certainly looks like Patricia Racette draped in silk, fretting into a vintage rotary phone, against a backdrop of crushed velvet, ornate fireplace mantels, and chaise lounges. I wasn’t in love with the English translation, but Racette handles it well and she’s a stunning actress.
I’ve seen this opera several times and I’m always intrigued; maybe it was the luxurious setting, the obviously-rich woman obsessed with her French lover, but I found it hard to sympathise with Elle. In one sense, La voix humaine is the perfect pandemic opera because it deals with isolation and the limitations of technology (I highly recommend Isaiah Bell’s treatment for City Opera Vancouver). But on the other hand, when the world is in a health crisis, it’s hard to spare the pity for a woman who’s feeling some very foreseeable consequences of adultery.
It was OTSL’s New Works, Bold Voices Lab that most stayed with me after viewing. Three short world premieres were unveiled, and it was one of those rare moments in new-opera-land where all the pieces are high-quality, attention-grabbing works. On the Edge, by Laura Carpman and Taura Stinson, is a snapshot of life at home during a pandemic, a single mom stretched way too thin, flanked by three children going through the motions of remote learning. Monica Dewey shows off stellar vocal chops, and Carpman’s score achieves an astonishing shift from a picture of chaos to commentary on the importance of love and solidarity.
Steven Mackey and Rinde Eckert’s Moon Tea is an awesome bit of fantastical history, reimagining a meeting between the British Royals with the astronauts of Apollo 11. Again, Dewey shines here as Queen Elizabeth II.
And Damien Sneed and Karen Chilton’s The Tongue & The Lash is a stunning look at America’s history with racism, an operatic setting of the notorious 1965 debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley which argued the motion that the American is at the expense of black Americans. The Tongue & The Lash features some of the night’s best singing. Markel Reed as Baldwin orates with a steely baritone that comes with some bite; tenor Jonathan Johnson exudes an easy power that’s slightly unnerving — even a bit colonialist — in his portrayal of Buckley, fan of racial segregation. Sneed’s score throws in a brilliant moment, sliding swiftly into the blues in a musical nod to the reality of Black American culture, the undeniably present group of people who were so dehumanized.