Visible Music

Opera, the original multimedia experience, shows new life in Seattle.

Seattle Chamber Players broke with traditional recital rules last spring to stage two first-rate theatrical presentations: Piazzolla's earthy "tango opera" Maria de Buenos Aires and (in its premiere) Paul Dresher's Kafkaesque one-singer fable, The Tyrant. This April, Seattle composer Tom Baker will present a new work, The Gospel of the Red-Hot Stars, an "operatorio" based on texts by Cotton Mather and Margaret Atwood.

These productions bracket an extraordinary and sudden flowering—a dozen or so examples in as many months— of what might be called "homemade opera." Singers and composers are taking the impresario reins, presenting small-scale productions both of new operas and of neglected works by established names, making their own opportunities to perform and be heard outside a mainstream operatic culture in which young singers face stiff competition and composers are all but ignored.

One thing a grassroots production can offer is longer, more in-depth rehearsal. With their Black Box Opera, Victor Benedetti, Juliana Rambaldi, and Carolyn Gronlund have created a singer-driven company—an ensemble working together from one production to the next, an approach attractive to singers who want to emphasize dramatic as well as vocal values. This weekend, Black Box will put its philosophy into practice with a double bill of works composed by Ned Rorem and staged by veteran theater director Arne Zaslove: Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters (to texts by Gertrude Stein) and Bertha (Kenneth Koch).

Black Box's Sarah Mattox knows the pitfalls of the traditional system. "Most opera companies hire professionals who come to town only for a few weeks, [who] meet each other for the first time on the first day of staging . . . ," she says. "The idea [for Black Box] was to assemble a group of singers with strong acting and improvisational skills, who would not part ways just as they learned to work together. Such an ensemble could provide a more nuanced and coordinated performance, allowing for a much deeper dramatic exploration of each work. It erases the usual lead time it takes for singers to learn the quirks of interaction." Colleague Marnie Breckenridge agrees. "After rehearsing with people you know you can trust, a kind of symbiotic relationship starts to happen. . . . You can experiment with different acting choices and voice colors without feeling like you will be criticized or corrected," she says.

Composers may have to stage their own operas if they want to see them at all. Two new works are being premiered this busy weekend, both exploring the boundaries of the operatic form—or, more accurately, assuming there are no boundaries. The Onion Twins is based on a Swedish folktale (libretto by Rebecca Brown). On evidence of a dress rehearsal last week, the piece struck me as a successful attempt to update Wagner's "total artwork" theory on an intimate scale. In composer Michael Katell and choreographer Alex Martin's collaboration, singers interact with the dancers, the dancers speak and sing, and the storytelling thread flows from dialogue to narration to aria to mime to abstract movement with beautifully crafted fluency. The foundation of Katell's tuneful score (for soprano, baritone, and four instruments) is English folk song, variously filtered through 18th-century ballad opera, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Sweeney Todd.

As in his previous operas, Garrett Fisher explores the theme of individuals in conflict with implacable forces (religion, fate, or the state) in Stargazer, a meditation on Galileo's clash with the church (libretto by Thom Schramm). An almost liturgical serenity prevails. Solo singing, choral singing and rhythmic chanting, and spoken word (both live and taped) are underpinned and colored by English horn, cello, taiko drum, and harmonium, while percussionist Dean Moore's huge array of gongs, bells, and metal found objects, ranging in size from tea saucer to car tire and hung from a scaffold/cage built to allow 360-degree access, provide visual spectacle as well as sound.

Ten years ago, Tom Baker founded Seattle Experimental Opera with Christian Asplund, and these pioneers are still active. Last summer, Gallery 1412 presented Asplund's Sunset With Pink Pastoral, a "road opera" including video. It's exciting that they and newer converts may have at last found a way to get the audience that gravitates toward the latest in theater, dance, visual art, and film to pay the same attention to new music. If over the centuries, opera's come to be seen as hidebound and forbidding, it was, after all, the original multimedia experience. By absorbing ideas from other arts into their creative process and into their works themselves, Seattle's opera experimentalists are reinventing the form by returning to its roots.

See this week's classical calendar for performance and ticket information for these productions.

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