February 10, 2009
For the second time in a year, I have been fortunate enough to attend a chamber opera production superior to any work I have seen from the Bay Area’s smaller companies. The culprit was Composers Inc., a contemporary chamber music collective that expanded its forces last Wednesday to mount a staged chamber opera in San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre. On a diminutive budget, Composers Inc. attracted first-rate singers, a top-notch band, an ideal performance space, and a production team capable of putting the whole thing together in eight days.
To make a big splash in its 25th season, Composers Inc. debuted The Dawn Makers by board member Allen Shearer to a libretto by Claudia Stevens, with whom he shares a breakfast table. This one-act work updates a Greek myth wherein a goddess (here called Gloria) asks for and receives eternal life for her strapping young Trojan consort (here called Victor). The Trojan receives immortality, all right, but continues to age into senility, and begs for unattainable death. At the end of the day, Gloria turns him into a grasshopper.
The opera asks for the diminutive forces of five singers and seven players, including a somewhat superfluous electric guitar. The music’s greatest strength was its singability, attributable to the composer’s being a vocalist himself. I would describe Shearer’s eclectic style as more declamatory than lyrical. I did have to struggle to understand the words, and at times everything was so natural that I forgot there was any music going on at all. However, this creates problems. With forces ideally suited to student programs and small opera companies, The Dawn Makers could benefit from a few excerptable arias and moments to allow the music to assert itself over the endless declamation. Here, the production and performance always upstaged the composer’s voice.
And of course there was the cast, Composers Inc. having managed to assemble singers of national if not international repute. The evening’s diva goddess was soprano Christine Brandes, in a costume that made her look like Judy Tenuta meets Wonder Woman. Known for her exuberance and beautiful, effortless tone, Brandes delivered as expected. Accompanying the goddess Gloria in her entourage were Anja Strauss and Erin Neff, cast as teenage horses, replete with Valley Girl–speak. Their uncannily believable and plucky acting was a highlight of the evening. I don’t know what warped mind made costume designer Richard Battle come up with costumes to match this charade, but it worked.
As the virile Pasadena pool boy called Bo, bass Eugene Brancoveanu’s huge and thrilling voice filled Herbst’s dry acoustic. Opera often hinges on the audibility of the cast, and Brancoveanu was the clear standout. This pool boy set the production’s tone early on when he fished a violin from the orchestra pit. Tenor John Duykers’ voice occasionally sounded brash and tired, but this was perhaps to indicate the aging Victor’s approaching senility. Conductor J. Karla Lemon supported the cast flawlessly with her instrumental ensemble of some of the Bay Area’s better new-music specialists.
Staging Suited to the Venue
It is a shame that opera lovers rarely see staged work in San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre, a venue ideal for intimate productions. The venue is tightly booked, and noted local stage director Brian Staufenbiel is to be commended for overcoming the Herbst’s limited availability in this outing. His direction suitably realized Claudia Stevens’ zany text, recalling his achievement in staging Lou Harrison’s Young Caesar a few years ago with the Ensemble Parallèle (yet another high-quality opera produced by a nonopera company).
The evening’s affair recalled the updated stagings of Peter Sellars. Ironically, the updates of Shearer’s and Stevens’ work came prepackaged. Staufenbiel pulled off a bevy of sight gags for the horses cum Valley Girls, did not bother to figure out what would make a pool boy look particularly Pasadena-ish, and even managed to figure out some way to stage the immobile, eternally aging Victor.
Well-concealed by the cast, staging, performance, and scenery was the opera’s crucial, and I daresay deal-breaking, flaw: lack of dramaturgy. Nothing happened. Although sight gags, wit, and quality may have sustained the audience’s attention, I doubt that the composer and librettist strove to replicate Kafka’s Metamorphosis (plot: after a while, he becomes a cockroach). This short opera’s failure to develop characters or reach a meaningful climax made the end of the evening feel like a first-act intermission. Shearer and Stevens could greatly improve the work with a second act.
Smaller opera companies would benefit from following the model of Composers Inc.: Perform works suited to available forces, reduce production periods to match the schedules of good singers, and trim the length of runs. After all, lack of resources yielded such masterpieces as Ariadne auf Naxos and The Rape of Lucretia. Allen Shearer may not yet match Richard Strauss or Benjamin Britten, but the usual fare of string quartet Carmens and Aidas will never yield a masterpiece speaking to our time. So much of the American opera scene could be called “Decomposers, Inc.”