I reckon marketing a sex-themed opera in Brooklyn should be like selling bacon-flavored froyo in Vermont. It’s a cakewalk for PR, a publicity boon—the safe-but-edgy fun we didn’t know we needed!
So when Three Way, composer Robert Paterson and librettist David Cote’s new three-part opera about swinger orgies and BDSM, strutted into Fort Greene for its debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last night, hyped fornication was already in the air. We got taglines (“Sex and the City meets Black Mirror!”), tongue-in-cheek swag (“I heart Three Way” buttons!), even a pre-show announcement breathily coaxing us to set our cell phones to vibrate.
Yet despite all the ballyhoo, once the lights went down, we voyeurs were treated to more than the typical routine in the sheets. Cleverly told over three acts, this was a sophisticated, exceptionally romantic, and even tender take on the silly vagaries of sex. And where several of the jokes may have felt too facile and a few setups a wee bit dated, the production, directed by Nashville Opera’s John Hoomes, was a romp overall, visually appealing and easy to swallow.
Each part features a different short parable on the topic of unconventional lovemaking. In “The Companion,” we meet Maya (Danielle Pastin), a world-weary working woman of the future who has tired of human men. For three months she has been living with an android, a pre-programmed, Clark Kent-ish houseboy and lover named Joe (Samuel Levine) who offers foot massages and sweet talk.
But things have turned robotic in the relationship of late (“You climaxed at 7:49,” he stiffly informs her), and Maya yearns for an authentic “I love you” from her tenor-voiced cyborg. So, maxed out on credit but in need of an ad blocker, she puts in a service call to Dax (hunky Wes Mason), the tech support guy from “Dream Companions, Inc.” and asks him to perform some repair work on Joe. What ensues is a human-golem love triangle, plus a moral lesson on the machineries of partnership.
“Safe Word” transports us to the red-and-black realm of the bondage dungeon, where operatically-named pro domme “Mistress Salome” (Eliza Bonet, she’s subbing in for “Mistress Tosca” tonight) is helping her alpha-businessman Client (Matthew Treviño) through his servile fantasies. Though perhaps whipped in real life—in a funny bit, we see him pausing the enslavement to take a phone call from his wife Mimi—this client can also perform as “Master,” and our S&M battlefield is set for the ultimate power play.
The final vignette, “Masquerade,” presents a slumber party at the country estate of swingin’ Jillian and Bruce DeBridge (Bonet and Treviño), where guests—winners of a highly selective application process, we’re told—are encouraged to don masks and check their hang-ups at the door. The rules and realities of groupsex prove more challenging for some visiting couples than for others: Jessie (soprano Courtney Ruckman, in terrific voice) and Marcus (Levine) arrive “seeking spice,” while experienced Connie and Larry (Pastin and Mason) are still testing boundaries.
Last to arrive are Tyler (Melisa Bonetti) and Kyle (countertenor Jordan Rutter), self-declared “pansexual post-gender partners” (actually, the very breed of bespectacled hipster utopianists you’d expect to see milling about at BAM). After a number of carnal acmes and letdowns, each detailed in song, guests come away with stimulating new insights about themselves.
Presented by American Opera Projects and Nashville Opera (Three Way launched in Tennessee at the start of this year), this production featured sets by Randall Williams, NO’s accomplished production director. Show looked great: pop-hued and appropriately spare, each successive act was schematically tinted to set apart the different stories, and video designer Barry Steele made inventive use of small-screen projections in acts one and three. Costumes by designer Matt Logan were mostly top-shelf, too, although dressing a futuristic career woman in a 1950s full-skirted frock did feel like a miss.
BAM’s Fishman Space doesn’t provide the most friendly acoustics, and yet on the whole, singing was nicely turned on opening night. Tough to single out individual performances from an ensemble evening, but particularly solid were the deeper-voiced cast members, with mezzo-soprano Bonet and baritone Mason both giving resonant, high-point renderings in their roles. (As Larry in act three, the latter turned up the pathos for his tortured impotence aria. “I could take that magic pill but I’d rather use my will,” indeed.)
Similarly crestfallen at the orgy, Rutter gave his postgender wallflower character Kyle some nice shading; his “Why So Shy” aria was another standout.
Collaborators Paterson and Cote, both bookishly stewed in the styles and traditions of opera, have made shrewd use of their knowledge, and Three Way is a work full of references. Dean Williamson, leading the twelve-piece American Modern Ensemble, ably conducted Paterson’s varicolored score, which draws obvious inspiration from Verdi and Mozart’s Così, but also from Broadway and even prog-rock here and there.
I noticed, and loved, the way Paterson’s third act contained a Straussian interlude to underscore the coitus—or was it Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth he was recalling there? Maybe Adès? Certainly evoking Strauss, Mistress Salome gets some wonderful crashing chords at the end of act two.
Ultimately, though, these operas are all about the writing. Cote, a longtime arts reporter and drama critic for Time Out New York, has wit to spare: a champagne brindisi sung by an android; Sondheimian lyrics like “I like an acquaintance that isn’t high-maintenance”; well-paced, character-driven duets that move the plot along. Although his operas could easily devolve into straight parody, he never shirks the chance to give moral weight to his fables. His social worlds rarely feel trifling.
I will say that Cote, for all his gender-bending hipness, could possibly have benefited from a little input from the young folk, as several punchlines (and plot points) skewed conspicuously nineties-throwback. Our fascination with robot sex and sex parties is certainly nothing new, nor is sadomasochism the edgy scenario for an opera it once was. Bruce is president of the “Pleasure Pilgrim Online Community,” a forum that sounds like something your uncle might have dabbled in when done downloading his porn from the neighborhood BBS.
Mostly though, young newcomers to opera will delight in this lighthearted work. It’s accessible and well sung; it’s also smartly eccentric. “Strangest is the stranger that you know,” goes one pithy line, referring to the joys of anonymous sex. Clearly the kind of threeway worth having.
Photo by Anthony Popolo.