We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Sunday, March 10, 2024


 Curtain Call at Arctic Exploration

Contemporary works often leave us bored or annoyed, and it takes something special to attract our attendance. The idea of an opera written about the search for a Northwest Passage aroused our curiosity and the opportunity to see four of the principles after a considerable gap in their New York City appearances presented an additional incentive. We were not disappointed although it was difficult to perceive Michael Dellaira's composition as a "folk opera".  Last week we reviewed an "oratorio" that seemed to us to be an opera and the work we saw last night seemed to be more of an oratorio.

Aside from seeing four artists that we had written about in the past, what we enjoyed most about Arctic Explorations was the theme of mankind's drive for discovery. We didn't need the Director's program notes to draw parallels with contemporary society's drive to conquer space. The price we pay for mankind's expansionist tendencies is the despoiling of nature.

The onstage presence of Inuit dance drummer and storyteller from Greenland (Nuka Alice) gave us something to think about since the survival of Inuit culture is threatened as much as that of the skinny starving polar bears we have all seen in photos and videos. Of course, one of the main raisons d'être of a work of art is to hold a mirror up to us and to make us think about issues.  Lately, current issues have been addressed in unmusical operas with prosy polemic scripts. Arctic Explorations was different.

There was a sequence of scenes telling the story of the mid-19th c. naval officer Elisha Kent Kane (believably portrayed by Colin Levin) . He was, at the behest of Present Zachary Taylor (a persuasive Michael Celentano) persuaded to search for the longed for Northwest Passage. President Taylor was, in turn, prevailed upon by Lady Jane Franklin (Erin Brittain) whose husband had gone in search of this Northwest Passage to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. He had never returned from this ice-blocked part of the world and she persuaded Taylor that the Unites States might succeed where Great Britain had failed, and lay claim to this vital channel that, as we understand it, could avoid the treacherous shipping route of "rounding The Horn".

Also exploring a different aspect of "the unknown" was Maggie Fox (the lovely soprano Nicole Haslett) who explored the world of "spirits" by running séances which were popular in this period of history. Ms. Fox was definitely connected to Kane although it is debatable whether they wed or not. Their letters found their way into the script.

It is to Mr. Dellaira's credit that the work led to a deep conversation with our companion for the evening and, furthermore, a considerable amount of reading online! Apparently, some artistic license was taken but nothing prevented our appreciation for this fascinating story.

Mr. Dellaira's music was pleasing and appealed to us most when it sounded like folk music. The instrumentals were provided by an onstage chamber group called The Harlem Chamber Players, an unusual septet comprising Clarinet (including our favorite instrument, the Bass Clarinet), Guitar, Banjo, Violin, Viola, Double Bass, and Percussion. We enjoyed the music and found the orchestration interesting in its varied textures.

The massive New Amsterdam Singers Chorus, led by Clara Longstreth since its founding 56 years ago ( ! ) did a considerable amount of heavy lifting which is one of the main reasons we thought of the piece as an oratorio. As a curtain raiser, they performed three works, one from the turn of the 17th c. and two contemporary pieces. We enjoyed the pianistic contributions of Pen Ying Fang in "Storyteller" by B.E. Boykin who set the text of a Tlingit poet named Ishmael Angaluuk Hope.

The director of Arctic Explorations was Kira Simring and the effective costuming was achieved by Danielle Hartley. The success of the evening can be attributed to the fine performances and direction that gave life to the story and the Harlem Chamber Players and New Amsterdam Singers Chorus that brought Michael Dellaira's music to life. The presence of Nuka Alice lent authenticity to the evening and we were gratified to learn how much she contributed to the realization.

And this reminds us to share one further thought about the work. The expedition of the British Franklin failed because they had contempt for the people who were native to Greenland.  The exploring party all died. That the American Kane returned alive can be attributed to his acceptance of help from the same people for whom Franklin had contempt. That we are all connected in this world of ours is a most important takeaway. At a time when divisiveness has infected our entire planet, it is vital that we learn to value and trust "the other", to share what we know and to learn to respect the viewpoints of others, even when we don't see things the same way.

(c) meche kroop

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