New Opera: Documentary or Work of Art?

Opera Parallèle

June 20, 2014

Anna Noggle as Anya Photos by Steve DiBartolomeoOpera not of cabbages and kings, but literally from today's headlines, Opera Parallèle's Anya17 packs a wallop.

On Friday, the day the work premiered in the Marines Memorial Theater, the U.S. State Department released the 2014 "Trafficking in Persons Report," quoting Secretary of State John Kerry about "more than 44,000 survivors who have been identified in the past year... more than 20 million victims of trafficking who have not."

Composer Adam Gorb has written a fascinatingly varied score to a libretto by Ben Kaye "to raise awareness of the secret world of sex trafficking [involving] up to 800,000 young women and children trafficked into the EU every year."

With Opera Parallèle's usual splendid musical direction (Nicole Paiement) and high production values (Brian Staufenbiel), Anya17 features an excellent cast. The story is "based on extensive research with caseworkers and experts from 10 supporting charities ... a highly dramatic interpretation of the lives of four young women trafficked from Eastern Europe and sold into sexual slavery."

Victor Benedetti as Viktor, with Janet Das and Quilet RarangAnna Noggle sings and acts marvelously as the young, naive, poor woman who trusts her lover to help her escape to the West. She is sold into slavery and prostitution, where her new identity is number 17 on the "whorehouse menu of fresh meat." Shawnette Sulker sings Mila, a fellow victim; Laura Krumm has an impressive turn as a woman blinded by the gangsters. Catherine Cook is Natalia, exploited since early childhood and now assisting with the kidnapping and subjugation of new girls.

Victor Benedetti sings the role of Viktor, the visible member of the gang running the house and Andres Ramirez is Gabriel, Anya's regular customer who falls in love with her.

Gorb's music is an extensive mix of brief tonal-atonal-jazzy-lyrical phrases, jarring in its restlessness, excellent in its vocal-orchestral balance which allows the text (also shown on supertitles) to come through. The production uses multiple projections constantly in motion; almost, but not quite, too busy. Roy Malan is the concertmaster of the 14-piece chamber orchestra, conducted by Paiement with her usual dynamic authority.

Janet Das and Quilet Rarang are the semi-masked and strangely-costumed stagehands (similar to Japanese kokoro), credited as dancers.

Anna Noggle and Shawnette SulkerDoes high-minded motivation and a big production result in an opera to stay in the repertory? "Time will tell" is the uncertain verdict of the unconvinced. What transforms pain and suffering into art? Why do we return to witness the agonizing tragedies of Oedipus or King Lear?

I wish I knew, but it's certainly not to learn about the causes and nature of their misfortune alone. My sense of Anya17 is that it's a documentary with a soundtrack, that no amount of effort pushes it through into a wider, higher domain. While evoking shock and sympathy, Anya17 didn't really move at least this one viewer. With all its facts-based authenticity, the relentlessly melodramatic opera's main impact was a feeling of discomfort during the 80-minute performance that seems to run longer. If that was the authors' and company's purpose, they have succeeded.