The Hunt
A scene from the 2023 premiere of Kate Soper’s The Hunt at Miller Theatre at Columbia University | Credit: Rob Davidson

Kate Soper was very much in our viewfinder this month — onstage via Long Beach Opera’s recent production of Ipsa Dixit and on CD with the release of her latest opera, The Hunt (New Focus Recordings). The latter is a rather modest entry in Soper’s string of theater pieces, lasting 55 minutes and utilizing just three a cappella female singers who occasionally accompany themselves on two ukuleles and violin.

The subject matter is unicorns — specifically, a medieval legend that the only way to capture one of those mythical creatures is to use a virgin maiden to lure it to said maiden’s lap, the hunters then taking it from there. With 21st-century politics in mind, Soper related this tale, in her words, to “the current cultural obsession with controlling female sexuality, the fear of gender nonconformity, and the dogged way those in power cling to easily refutable, outlandish lies.”

CD cover

In The Hunt, three virgins are sent to find a unicorn by an unseen king whose pronouncements as related by the women are laden with irritating electronic feedback. The ladies report back on their cellphones — an endearingly irreverent anachronism if the production is set in medieval times, which it doesn’t have to be because the synopsis says, “In medieval and/or contemporary times.”

In “Sugar Song,” late in the opera, the bored maidens trip out on sugar cubes laced with belladonna and experience hallucinations, rolling their r’s like race cars all over their ranges, laughing and spouting gibberish (aka extended vocal techniques). Belladonna, otherwise known as deadly nightshade, is toxic when ingested.

Eventually the unicorn appears, and so do the hunters who can’t catch it. The virgins decide to protect the unicorn by ridding themselves of their virginity, with two of them pairing off with each other and the third finding an unseen yet willing stable boy to perform the deed. In doing so, the ex-virgins are symbolically ridding themselves of authoritarian male domination. Bully for them.

The score largely sounds like a stream of madrigals, with the mostly false sightings of the beast resulting in a babble of voices. As in Ipsa Dixit, the words come from Soper and an assortment of found texts by others, dating back to Pliny the Elder, as abridged and set to melodies by the composer. Christiana Cole (Briar), Brett Umlauf (Fleur), and Hirona Amamiya (Rue) are the three sopranos who capably sing the parts of the virgins and play their instruments under the musical direction of Mila Henry.

Ultimately, though, the whole work is a bit tiresome to sit through. The collection of poetic texts from several hands gives you little sense of forward motion through the plot, and the score doesn’t veer much into the freely eclectic pursuits that have fired up Soper’s ample imagination in previous theater pieces. The best number, The Noble Unicorn,” is a bawdy folk song with a nice tripping rhythm and a funny ending. Otherwise, The Hunt amounts to a pit stop for Soper as we await to hear where her inventive muse leads her next.