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.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018


Cast and Creatives of Big Jim and the Small-time Investors

We have decided that it's all opera--whether we call it opera theater, theater opera, music theater, or opera theater.  If trained voices are singing unamplified and music is used to tell a story, it's opera.  We have no interest in splitting hairs, no matter what distinctions the creators try to make.

The story told in Big Jim and the Small-time Investors is that of a con man who fleeces people by getting them to invest in "The Dream Machine", apparently some sort of virtual reality that allows people to experience their wildest dreams. Big Jim himself is kinda virtual.  Makes sense, doesn't it?

The story is reasonably well told with Big Jim's appearance inside a frame suggesting a TV or computer, although we think the idea that he is but a hologram could have been gotten across better through props and lighting which were otherwise quite satisfactory.  Tyler Learned is credited for Lighting Design.

Composer Eric Salzman, recently deceased, has written a score comprising violin, viola, cello, keyboard and electronics (opus 87 Piano Quartet) augmented by an accordion and percussion. The instrumental music was well played but if one were hoping to find a melody, one would have had to wait until after the curtain call when we heard a fine rendition of "Happy Birthday" sung by the cast to a member of Salzman's family.

There was not a single mediocre voice onstage.  Not only did everyone sing with fine tone but the diction was uniformly successful. We only wish that the libretto by Ned Jackson had been more "musical". Between the unmelodic vocal line and the unmusical language, we found ourself, as we often do during contemporary works, focusing more on the drama.

We have heard Rodolfo explaining himself to Mimi a hundred times and have never had our attention wander.  Last night when Big Jim (the excellent tenor Scott Joiner, whom we so enjoyed as Bob Cratchit at Gramercy Opera) was explaining himself to Kim (the superb soprano Jessica Fishenfeld whose career has taken off since we reviewed her in 2013 as the Sandman at Manhattan School of Music's Hansel und Gretel) we got no help from the words or the music in understanding either character.

It isn't true that Salzman could not write a melody because he gave a lovely tango to the accordion, well played by Denise Koncelick, and well danced by Ms. Fishenfeld and baritone Aaron Theno, who created the character of Stan, Big Jim's salesman. It's just that the vocal lines were, well, forgettable.

With such lack of melody, we would have to say that we preferred the duets and ensembles which offered interesting harmonies. We liked the duet between Big Jim and Stan about trust, and also the one between Big Jim and his mother, convincingly performed by soprano Darynn Zimmer. We wanted to know more about their relationship but all we learned was that he was taken away from her and raised by his father in a desert. When she learns who her son really is she keels over dead!

The duet between Jim and Kim--"How does it feel?" was a highlight.

The chorus of investors played several roles each and were admirable in their acting as well as singing. We enjoyed soprano Helena Brown who is always larger than life. We started writing about her 5 years ago and always loved her big mezzo soprano sound.

Soprano Allison McAuley is a familiar presence on New York opera stages and always delights us. Jami Leonard is new to us but we hope to hear her lovely soprano again soon.

The three men in the chorus were similarly effective. Baritone Benjamin Bloomfield has been on our radar screen since Lachlan Glen's perusal of all 600+ Schubert songs. We hear he has been having great success as Falstaff. Big guy, big voice! Tenor Alex Frankel and bass-baritone Blake Burroughs were new to us; they handled their roles effectively.

Conductor Victoria Bond wielded her baton with energy and style. Aside from conducting, she is a well known composer in her own right, and is Artistic Director of Cutting Edge Concerts New Music Festival which she founded a couple decade ago.

The work was directed by J. Griffith Brown who kept thing moving along nicely. Scenic Designer Abby Walsh created an effective set with a lot of imagination and apparently small budget.  There were lots of cardboard boxes onstage and ski goggles doubled for virtual reality goggles.

The production was a collaboration between Gramercy Opera, Quog Music Theater, and Welltone New Music, Inc.  The Leonard Nimoy Thalia was the perfect size for a production of this type and the audience that packed the theater seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. We enjoyed ourself moderately. We are still waiting for a contemporary opera that we'd want to see a second time.

(c) meche kroop

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