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, April 30, 2023


 Vulpine Nuptials at Manhattan School of Music
(photo by Brian Hatton)

We wish to heap accolades upon Manhattan School of Music Graduate Opera Theater's production of Leos Janaček's fairytale opera The Cunning Little Vixen, also known as Vixen Sharp-Ears. It is a perfect example of team effort, involving the participation of Maestro Kirk Severtson who used the fine resources of the MSM Orchestra to illuminate Janaček's painterly score; of Director Dennis Whitehead Darling who told the story in the most engaging fashion; of the large cast of singers who filled our ears with the most thrilling sounds and, under the tutelage of Diction Coach Kathryn LaBouff, obviated the need for subtitles; of Costume Designer Jen Gillette and Wig, Hair, and Makeup Designer Loryn Pretorius who helped all the singers to embody their given characters; and of Scenic Designer Brian Ruggaber who provided the setting for this gem of a production.

We have yet to mention the dancing. Woodland scenes were populated by swarms of beautiful butterflies recruited from the ranks of the Music Theater Department. Choreography by Felicity Stiverson was just about perfect.

It is almost 10 years to the day that we were introduced to this work by Juilliard Opera and it was performed in street clothes and used a non-woodland set with a good translation by Yveta Synek Graff and Robert T. Jones. We were to see it several more times within a couple years, once at MSM Summer Voice Festival in a deficient translation that fought with the music, and once by Dell'Arte Opera in an imaginative production, sung in Czech, which we found most effective in following the accents of the music.

And oh, what music it is! Although it was written a quarter of the way into the 20th century, the utilization of Moravian folk tunes overrode any instances of atonalism. Showing evidence of the excellent teaching by James Morris, Yeong Taek Yang employed his superlative vocalism and convincing acting to create the character of The Forester as an Everyman, longing for the romance he missed when he married, and now perhaps more in love with his dog Lapák (the excellent Alexandra Lovisa Olsson Andersen) and just maybe the fox kit he captures and brings home as a pet.

And this brings us to the completely winning performance of Joo Yeon Kim as Sharp-Ears. She managed to convey a blend of animal instinct and human foibles. She is a proto-feminist, urging the hens to rebel against their pimp (sorry, the rooster) but then reverts to animal instinct by killing the hens. Like a human woman, she flirts with a possible mate--Gold Stripe (finely performed by Seolbin Oh) who wins her by bringing fresh meat.  (Think wooing with a steak dinner in contemporary times!) The pair move into a home seized from  the grumpy Badger in a swipe at capitalism since the Badger ( effectively portrayed by Benjamin R. Sokol) keeps the den all for himself and does not share. Woodland gossip about their cohabitation leads to a shotgun marriage.

There is a great deal of mime which, along with the evocative music, serves to tell the story. The Forester's wife (Zhe Nancy Xiong) scolds her husband for bringing home the fox cub but he persuades her to relent. Who cannot relate to the familial conflict? Their two bratty boys Pepik and Frantik (Madison Marie Fitzpatrick and Grace Verbic) beat and taunt the kit until she lashes out and Mama must console her crybaby son. We can sense The Forester's despair at losing the battle and losing the kit that maybe he has fallen in love with. Who has not grieved when a parent or spouse has made them give up a beloved pet?

When Vixen and Sharp-Ears meet we are no less moved than we are by the meeting of Mimi and Rodolfo in Act I of Puccini's La Bohême. When The Forester sits at the tavern with his two drinking buddies, their conversation could take place today. The sad sack Schoolmaster (Woo Jin Dong) mourns the unavailability of the gypsy girl who prefers another.  Life has passed him by. The pedantic Parson (Mr. Sokol again) will find employment in another town. The men stagger home inebriated (falling down drunk). The tavernkeeper and his wife (William Velasco and Julia Johnstone) seem like any couple running a business together and dealing with rowdy customers who don't like to pay up.

The joyful wedded bliss of Fox and Vixen is ended by the poacher Harašta (Nan Wang) who wants a fox pelt for Terynka, his bride to be. He doesn't consider all the kits in the litter left without maternal care. Our world today has daily reminders of people who kill for spoils or for fun. Is the human world crueler than the animal world?

This wonderful story of love, death, and rebirth was adapted by Janáček from a story which originated as a serial comic strip. He wrote the libretto himself. The work was "reduced" by Jonathan Dove but there was no mention of the translator in our program. Fortunately there were no "Director's Notes" to tell us what to see and feel. The work speaks for itself and allows us to appreciate many issues on our own--the cycle of life, the rituals of courtship, the selfishness of human beings, disappointments, loss, social injustice, the treatment of women, the treatment of animals.  Every moment since the curtain has brought a new insight. As we were writing we just thought that foxes are know for their cunning. Who was more devious, Sharp-Ears or Harašta who puts on an innocent air whilst poaching animals?

In spite of all the sadness and loss, this work is never maudlin; it is a clear-eyed view of reality and also allows us moments of lighthearted humor, as when the Mosquito (Mr. Dong again) uses a hypodermic to draw blood from a human and then squirts it into his mouth. It is to the credit of Mr. Darling that we enjoyed many similar moments of directorial invention. Every character had a personality and every singer did a fine job of acting.

Our mind is filled with images and thoughts about life that can only come from great theater and only when the direction gives us leave to draw connections on our own. This can be thought of as the best operatic experience we have enjoyed.  OR, we wish to call it the best THEATRICAL experience. It has been said that art holds up a mirror to our society and shows us who we are. This production succeeded equally as entertainment and illumination.

© meche kroop

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