The Wavertree--South Street Seaport
Does a particular setting inspire a program or does a program dictate a search for the right venue? We cannot answer that question but what we can say is that On Site Opera's original and compelling programs have always gone together like peanut butter and jelly. How we have missed this unique company over the last year and a half!!! What a pleasure to see and hear them back in action.
At first we were puzzled about "what lay beneath" the decision to combine what, at first glance, appeared to be very different elements. A tall sailing ship seemed perfect as a setting for arias and songs and monologues about the sea. One could also accept it as an appropriate setting to tell the tales of African slaves. But why together on the same program?
Contemplation provided what we think is a reasonable link. All the stories told were of suffering and all connected to the sea. The individual is at the mercy of the forces of nature as well as the pressures of history. The Year of Living Covidly has also been the Year of Black Lives Matter.
On Site Opera's current production What Lies Beneath suggests to us the examination of social forces as well as forces of nature. The program opened with Bernard Holcomb as "The Trickster", a god familiar to many cultures. Coyote and Kokopelli are familiar to us from Native American folklore. Mr. Holcomb's delivery of Thulani Davis' text was dramatically impeccable and completely absorbing. The aria is from Anthony Davis' opera Amistad which we have never seen.
Bass-baritone Zachary James' powerful delivery of Ahab's Monologue by Caitlin Vincent surmounted Juliana Hall's unmusical setting. James' scenery chewing took us deep into the soul of the obsessed captain.
"Claggart's Aria" from Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd was given a fine performance by Matthew Anchel. The text by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier limns the character of a truly evil person, not unlike Iago from Othello and Mr. Anchel's delivery sent shivers up and down our spine. We believe that Claggart hates Budd not only because the youth is innocent and good but also because he has aroused Claggart's hidden homosexual yearnings.
If you are familiar with J.M. Synge's Riders to the Sea or Ralph Vaughan Williams' opera of the same name, you will recall that Maurya has lost her husband and all of her sons to the sea. "Maurya's Lament" was sung with dignity and resignation by the excellent Tesia Kwarteng.
A chorus of Afro-American performers dressed in white (costumes by Azalea Fairley) joined forces for 1619:A Song Cycle by Damien Geter, receiving its East Coast premiere. Texts seemed to be derived from oral history and painted a disturbing picture of African people being lured onto slave ships by shiny trinkets and red handkerchiefs. It was impossible to be unmoved by these stories.
Reading about history in books only goes so far. We recall trips to Charleston and New Orleans where the sight of slave auctioning blocks with shackles left us both sickened and enlightened. The arts serve a similar purpose of making things real. We are very much in favor of Americans confronting our past and owning it, much as Germany has done with the Holocaust. This is not to say that we should feel guilty about what happened before we were born; rather we must correct our pathways for now and for the future. What Lies Beneath opens a dialogue for us and was not just "entertainment".
The work was conducted by James Davis Jr., whose arrangement of John Ireland's Sea Fever was given its world premiere. The text by John Masefield is familiar to every school child..."I must go down to the seas again".
Several musicians provide the keyboard accompaniment and Rasaan Talu Green provided exciting drumming on the Djembe.
© meche kroop
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