TO . . ., 3
Veddy British Music
(Kraft) <> Going Into 'Understated Drive' (Kroll), 6
DOTTED NOTES from … Kraft, Kroll, Greenfest, Hickey, BLC, 16
SPEAKING OUT! Thoughts on the Pulitzer Prize, 17
THE PRINTED WORD Berger's Reflections (Kraft), 20
THE SCOREBOARD Sperry's Encores (Drogin), 21
Mini but Not Mousy
(Cleary) <> Bell's Echoes of Bela (Cleary) <> Just a Few Will Do (Cleary),
RECENT RELEASES, 24
THE PUZZLE CORNER, 25
COMPOSER INDEX, 27
BULLETIN BOARD, 27
Modern Orchestra Project
Shadows: Laurel Ann Maurer
A Rave for "Vera"
Daron Hagen: Vera of Las Vegas, A Nightmare Cabaret Opera. Libretto by Paul Muldoon. With Shequida, Patricia Dell, others. Presented by Center for Contemporary Opera, Richard Marshall, director. At the Leonard Nimoy Thalia, Symphony Space, NY, NY. June 26th and 27th 2003.
The CCO made a notable contribution to the season by presenting the world premier of Vera of Las Vegas, fully subtitled A Nightmare Cabaret Opera in one act and five scenes. The music is by Daron Hagen, with a libretto by the distinguished poet Paul Muldoon; it ran at Symphony Space on June 26th and 27th 2003. Richard Marshall, the guiding spirit of CCO, was the General and Artistic Director.
The opera begins and ends with a brief silent scene in an interrogation center somewhere in Northern Ireland. Taco Bell (Dillon McCartney), a member of the IRA, is being interrogated by two British officers, the interrogation consisting of slapping his face. The two similar scenes frame the entire opera. The entire action represents the efforts of Taco to escape mentally from his torture by imagining that he and his pal Dumdum (Elem Eley) have been offered a trip to Las Vegas with all expenses paid.
Their hostess, if that is the right word, is Vera, who shows them around and introduces them to various denizens of the town. At the same time they are being hunted by an INS agent disguised as an airline stewardess, Doll Common (Patricia Dell), while two sinister figures in trench coats seem to be pursuing them as well.
If all this sounds rather complicated, it is. But this libretto is a fantasy, and if it is somewhat disjointed, that is not surprising considering that it is being dreamed up by a man who is being tortured. But even if it is difficult to follow the convoluted story line, the libretto does present a number of dramatic situations and confrontations, so that the interest of the audience is held throughout. The script is filled with references to contemporary movies and popular music. When Taco stumbles out of what he had expected to be an assignation with Vera only to find that she is a he, Dumdum asks "didnt you see The Crying Game at the movies?"
The mood of the story is very much "now", quite up to date. In addition to the references to contemporary events, we have the presence of both the IRA and the INS. And what could be more up-to-date than the title role of a transvestite being sung by a black countertenor.
And what a voice Shequida, as Vera Allemagne, possesses! I have never heard a singer with such an enormous range. His voice is strong in all registers. Shequida can sing quite expressively, too, as in a long aria towards the end of the opera in which she reveals her sad loneliness despite all the glitz and glamour that surrounds her.
All the singing was on a high level, with good tone quality and diction. That applies to the chorus, about which a word will be said later.
Mr. Hagens music suits the style of the libretto perfectly. The idiom is very much "Broadway", with references to many kinds of pop music, handled masterfully. The music is tuneful and rhythmically sophisticated, the words set clearly. Much of the music comes in short bursts of a phrase or two which almost interrupt each other in rapid succession, except for two long arias, one for Doll and one for Vera, which are quite successful in projecting a long lyric line. Altogether the opera is a musical tour de force.
Since the theater, Leonard Nimoy Thalia, does not have an orchestra pit, the four members of the band were scattered about the stage, adding to the nightclub atmosphere. The onstage band consists of four players, with a piano and clavinova (Robert Frankenberry), playing the leading role throughout. Paul Garment held forth on flute, clarinet and saxophone, while the percussion was ably handled by Jeff Kraus; Jeff Carneys bass provided ample support.
One of the most striking aspects of the show was the way in which words, music, and dance were thoroughly integrated. The dancers did not play much of a part in the unfolding of the story line, but the presence of half a dozen scantily clad young females moving about the stage added to the show biz atmosphere that was an important element of the presentation. The stage director, Charles Maryan and the choreographer, Bruce Heath made the most of the limited stage area.
It seems to me that American opera is developing along two separate lines. One stems from the European tradition; Hugo Weissgals Esther is an outstanding example. William Bolcoms View from the Bridge is another, despite its American flavor. The other type grows out of the musical comedy, which in some cases (as in Sweeney Todd) begins to move in the direction of opera, or perhaps we should adopt the current term "musical theater." Stanley Walbens Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, also a CCO production, is a brilliant example of the type of opera that derives from American popular sources.
It seems to me that Vera could have a successful run in an off-Broadway theater. It is a very attractive and timely show. But even a short run would cost more than the weekly salary of one of our baseball heroes, and we just dont do that. In any event sung drama, far from being dead, is alive and showing considerable vitality. CCO is to be congratulated for having brought us such an excellent manifestation of that vitality.