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Proving Up Proves Difficult

January 20, 2020

Pasadena Opera

Horrific futility. Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek in their newest collaboration Proving Up (2018), certainly executed an ecosystem of dread, of a dead-end. It was a heavy lift for the Pasadena Opera, which performed it last weekend at the Boston Court Theater, in Pasadena.

Though there is a somewhat clear narrative arc, the piece feels like a biblical tableau. The players are set, the outcomes decided, the lesson not much more than a “Turn Back” sign. It is hard to look at even a large painting for 90 minutes. This work is perhaps not flawed in its narrative and sonic design, so much as inherently unlikeable. The characters, though damned, must pull you in, not push you away.

The story of Proving Up is based on the history of the 1862 Homestead Act, which promised 160 acers of Western public land to people who could satisfy a seemingly arbitrary set of requirements. In Nebraska, the setting for this opera, the requirements to gain a deed to land were to build a sod house, farm grain, produce five years of harvest, and most elusively, procure a glass window. In Proving Up, we watch the sacrifice of that which is most precious, life, for that which is most coveted: property. It’s hard to not make this lesson tired.

I was left wondering if I liked it, or even fully heard it. Boston Court is a black-box theater, which is a good size for this chamber opera, but every singer sang for a much larger space, which had an obliterative effect. The emotional range felt constricted, not helped by the unchanging fog of dread emanating from the orchestra.

Pasadena Opera’s artistic director — and director for this production — Indre Viskontas, made a few confusing choices about the children characters. Miles, the younger son, sung by tenor Jonathan Smucker, is hopeful not only that their family will soon be “proving up,” but he looks forward to the time when he is a man with a family that “proves up.” When attempting to deliver their precious window to a neighbor, Miles’s almost druggy sunniness provided much needed euphoria to the constant gloom. When a downpour starts, he dismounts his horse and takes out the window just to watch the rarefied water run down the glass panes. This was the highlight of the opera for me, especially with Mazzoli’s uncanny ability to bring the frantic fluidity of water on glass to life.

This was all undermined, however, by confusion about how old this kid really is. Veracity just seeped away at every turn. In the beginning, Viskontas has Miles playing with wooden toy trains, which at any age above 5 in this context would be ridiculous, as every able child would be working. This choice was probably made in order to code an adult singer as a child, but considering the clues of the libretto, painting him so young is very clumsy. Miles talks of his “peach fuzz” and is trusted to ride the family’s horse — perhaps he is 10, at least? A 10-year-old would definitely be working, even if he is still playful and talking to the livestock. Viskontas’s direction throughout sent mixed signals about his age, and try as Smucker might, Miles continued to be a rough caricature of a child (and often comical when comedy was not the intent). This was damaging to the production as a whole, as he is the most interesting character and perhaps the linchpin of the whole narrative.

There are multiple children in this work, and the parts are written for adults, which is common practice. It will always take suspension of disbelief to see 20- or 30-something-olds as young children, and this is why any holes in the portrayal can unravel the characters so quickly.

This is still a young time for Pasadena Opera, whose first production, Bernstein’s Candide, was only in 2014. The company deserves applause for wrangling Proving Up, but I was too distracted by the dead-end, and not enticed by the characters enough to follow them down a path that goes nowhere.

Tamzin Elliott is a composer and writer based in Los Angeles, and a doctoral student at University of Southern California.