Dark humor grows in Brooklyn
After Friday night, it seems clear that the Brooklyn hipster is destined to be the next audience for opera. Galapagos Art Space was home to another co-production by American Opera Projects and Opera on Tap, this their fifth collaboration, and once again some amazing surprises were presented by this rag-tag bunch of very experimental artists. But aside from the range in quality, timbre and medium presented by the evening, what struck me last night was the audience.
The space was almost full, consisting of even parts hipster and long time opera fan, and even two giants on the contemporary opera scene, composer Mark Adamo and librettist Mark Campbell. In the dimly lit space, which this evening lacked the indoor river that was quite noisy last time, the old and new guard of opera viewers mingled in an open-minded night of musical experimentation.
The evening started off with a bang, or more accurately, a superbly sung and beautifully phrased song by Daniel Felsenfeld, performed by Adrienne Danrich with solo cello accompaniment played by Hamilton Berry. Ms. Danrich’s huge, lush, dark voice rocked me with its intensity, and her careful handling of the beautiful Walt Whitman poetry which she was singing made the otherwise acoustically dead room spin with emotion. The second song, composed by Andrew Staniland, was given the same careful treatment dramatically by Ms. Danrich, but the odd setting of the text left the poem fragmented by repeated plosive consonants used as a percussion effect.
The following songs by Gilda Lyons featuring Nicole Mitchell and pianist Kelly Horsted were settings of poems by local Brooklyn children. The settings of these poems were intentionally composed in a childlike manner, and this proved sadly to be a waste. Some of this poetry had far deeper emotional gravitas than the simple, poppy harmonies and quirky sudden endings chosen by Ms. Lyons. Ms. Mitchell’s voice was serviceable, but for some reason had the pushed, jagged sound of a countertenor without the heroic overtones.
The absolute highlight of the evening for me was an amazing work about love and voluntary amputation. Composer and singer/songwriter Corey Dargel and pianist Kathleen Supové presented their song cycle/rock show/performance art piece titled “Removable Parts,” featuring Mr. Dargel singing, his voice oddly similar to Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie. The texts, also written by Mr. Dargel, have the most jarring combination of sweetly true love and disgusting details of the wish for amputation of healthy limbs. The experience was an intense, heartfelt, funny, emotional piece of contentious individuality and somehow without any hint of sarcasm. I’m not entirely sure if the piece would sound quite right sung with a classically trained voice, but if someone gives it a try, I’d be more than happy to listen.
The last piece of the evening, Felsenfeld’s “The Bloody Chamber”, was an incomplete showing. Incomplete because it was only the first third of the opera, but also incomplete because the singers seemed not to make an attempt to enunciate the text. When you’re premiering a work, I think clear diction would be of the utmost importance, but last night I understood roughly a quarter of the text. The story is a new adaption of the Bluebeard tale by Elizabeth Isadora Gold, so I could roughly identify characters, but soprano Indre Viskontas and baritone Ross Benoliel also helped with an admirable job conveying their characters through their acting.
Both had very beautiful voices. Ms. Viskontas’ might have been a little undersized for the imperfect acoustics and vocal writing sitting heavily in the lower and middle voice, and Mr. Benoliel’s suavely handsome voice matched his seductive stage presence. Mr. Felsenfeld has a wonderful compositional voice, even when writing for a small chamber ensemble, this evening consisting of violin, cello, flute, clarinet and piano. I think that hidden in this writing are more complex timbres and structures that are yearning to come out, and I hope that Mr. Felsenfeld pursues this in his further work on the piece.
[The third paragraph of this post has been updated to correctly identify the composers of the two songs mentioned.]