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.

Saturday, January 11, 2014


Michael Slattery, Erin Sanzero, Melissa Wimbish, James Shaffran, Amanda Crider, Keith Phare and Jonathan Blalock lying on the floor. (Photo by C. Stanley Photography)
Here in New York City in 2014, we love our misfits.  But in 1906 Pittsburgh, they did not.  Willa Cather's short story "Paul's Case" is an incisive study of a high school student who is just such an outlier.  Prototype has presented an opera with the same title that musically and visually illuminates this character study.  Composer Gregory Spears has written music that reflects both the claustrophobic external environment and the inner world of Paul's yearning imagination; unlike much contemporary music, it avoids tedium and holds the ear from the portentous opening chords until the shattering finale.

The libretto by Mr. Spears and Kathryn Walat tells the story in an expressionistic way with much repetition which is a good thing because the English was not always intelligible.  Titles would have been welcome.

It is to the credit of tenor Jonathan Blalock that we in the audience come to understand this strange young man who was apparently dropped down the wrong chimney.  Motherless since birth, he is acutely aware of being out-of-place and hides his contempt for his bourgeois surroundings with peculiar behavior that his father and teachers cannot understand.  He wears a red carnation in his lapel, bows, smirks and manages to confound and infuriate people.  He is disinterested in school but enjoys working as an usher in Carnegie Hall (Pittsburgh) where he can enjoy music and theater and art.

Mr. Blalock misses no vocal, facial or gestural note in his portrayal.  We sense his joy as he liberates himself from his drab surroundings and flees to New York where he outfits himself handsomely in fine attire and installs himself at the Waldorf-Astoria where he finally feels as if he belongs.  Mr. Spears' music deftly underscores the expansion of his spirit.  Unfortunately his sudden wealth was ill-gotten and his theft is is discovered.  He comes to a bad end as represented by the final tableau.

His three teachers are well portrayed by sopranos Erin Sanzero and Melissa Wimbish and mezzo Amanda Crider; in the second act, in an especially delightful scene, they enact three maids at the Waldorf who are making up Paul's room.  The two sopranos also portray opera singers onstage at the theater.

Baritone Keith Phares makes a fine father, wanting Paul to succeed on his terms.  Baritone James Shaffran sang the roles of the puzzled principal and a hotel bellboy.  Tenor Michael Slattery sang the role of a Yale freshman who accompanied Paul on his night on the town.

The challenging music was conducted by Robert Wood with Keith Chambers on piano.  The string quartet was enhanced by a bass, two soulful clarinets and a harp--The American Modern Ensemble. 

The fine directorial hand of Kevin Newbury kept the movement right on target and built tension throughout the piece.  Amanda Seymour designed the costumes with fine detail for that period.  Set designer Timothy R. Mackabee kept things simple; the masterstroke was the lowering of the grid of pendulum lamps at the end, leaving the audience with a riveting image.

© meche kroop

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