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Mabel’s Call
by Nell Shaw Cohen,
by Rachel Peters,
by William Susman and Stuart Rojstaczer

Bass Hall, Fort Worth

Reviewed Performance: 5/3/2018

Reviewed by Ryan Maffei, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

How far can I make it into an opera review without divulging that I know very little about opera? (So far so good.) Sure, I can place your bigger names, your Verdis and Puccinis and Wagners, to periods, styles and familiar themes; sure, I’m familiar with the vocal classifications and boned up enough on music itself to be able map my way around a decent portion of what’s happening. Still, if you want to indulge in a century-spanning, minutia-probing dialogue, or just play spot the homage, I am simply not your girl.

But then again, isn’t opera one of those things so firmly entrenched in tradition and the past, its rigid pillars reflect relatable truths, instantly recognizable and accessible to any open-minded attendee? Countless variations on “betrayal, love, tragedy, and death”, as it was succinctly put Thursday night? Isn’t the very act of setting life to music a concession to weird realities about our very states of being we’re all burning to see echoed, an illumination of things we’re always atonally straining to identify? Is not, then, any thinking, feeling individual perfectly qualified to experience an opera, utterly ignorant of the solid old form’s lineage, and still respond to what they’re seeing at a reciprocal level of passion?

However qualified to be there, in my shamefully scuffed blue & cream Wallabees, college town thrift shop aqua button-down, and best pair of jeans of the two (no holes), I was a sore thumb in the nearer rows of the Frontiers workshop Thursday night. With two columns of tasteful tailoring behind me, and the luminous empyrean reaches of Bass Hall peering over the audience’s collective right shoulder, I felt a bit like a badly disguised double agent in a covert plot to bring down the bourgeoisie. Fortunately, some cover was innate to the intimate longhouse of a blackbox we nestled in, fashioned for this showcase by putting the audience and performers opposite each other between wings along the proscenium. Even if I was puncturing the pristine aura of it all, Frontiers is a casual affair for a night at the you know where, consisting as it does of selections from six newly developed operas in brisk programs of three a night.

This is the sixth annual such feature, brought into being by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. It’s not only a keen way to promote and provide exposure to fresh work without shoehorning tastier but riskier new inventions into the regular season, especially since conservative tastes probably pay the bills – by its more casual, nouveau nature, it provides an entry-level experience to the opera novice and skeptic. And it’s clear regular sponsors of an expensive, exponentially niche tradition enjoy the power reversal these benevolent closeups provide – maybe-masterpieces stripped of furniture; distance; reputations preceding. While judicious with applause and other such viscera, patrons will nevertheless tell one of the writers casually invited into an impromptu intro that they’re “very well-spoken”. They can via for more insight over wine if they elect to gather with the authors in the mezzanine after the show, too.

Still, while each of the three pieces previewed Thursday variated a motif of innocent innovation – be it Henry Ford’s or a displaced NYC avant-gardist’s or an aspiring (and compulsive) baker’s – they’re each by all evidence confident, challenging, complete achievements, prepped for prime time and then some. The overall impact of each set of excerpts is very different, indicating larger such gulfs between the eventual productions. Yet the diversities in tone, approach and, I can report having looked at and listened to each author, source make for a fun set when fording Frontiers. You’d hate for a thing like this to feature two ideas blending into each other, or to leave with the sense that opera is only headed in one direction. The four minds behind ran from younger to older, sincerer to more playful, cryptic to all-too-open, and their works deftly tread a similar range; with a just a few pieces, honest tears and wry smiles filled the hall.

The most mysterious and probably most affecting of the three works was Mabel’s Call, an opera whose trio of excerpts were so subtle and arresting they exemplified a sort of waking-dream feeling Nell Shaw Cohen’s characters each seemed to be lost in. The show follows arts patron and writer Mabel Dodge Luhan following her own willful displacement, from the New York arts community she came up in and called home to the far more remote, far less electric or predictable plains of Taos, New Mexico. Anyone who’s found themselves in that area, even if not by enigmatic creative impulse, knows it’s a special kind of captivating, and the native culture permeates everything around it with such graceful, comprehensive intensity it practically reigns. It’s very peaceful too, as is the broader area around it. The three moments Cohen selected were mostly downbeat, her characters rattled with uncertainty. Her music magisterially elevated these noncommittal, commonplace feelings – the composer most called to mind was Ives, who had an innate talent for matching disjointed, natural conversation and the disjointed, natural emotions such conversation usually falls short of capturing. However, it should be said that the more vibrant and anthemic last excerpt altered this approach, and came off rather less effectively than its company.

Fordlandia is the piece that landed softest, though the music was still beautiful, complex and affecting, and the accompanying language appropriately and agreeably rooted in the American colloquial. The charming creators William Susman and Stuart Rojstaczer are unpretentious and charming in real life, even quite funny, but barring the curious title – an apparent takeoff on something so unmoored from sincerity, not to mention Henry Ford, you really can’t take it off at all – they’ve made little space for such informality in their work, a dramatization of Henry Ford’s big saga undertaken because it simply struck Susman as operatic. Something so definitionally plot-reliant is apt to suffer some when reduced to a set of chronologically diffuse climaxes, and while the composition is more conventional than Cohen’s it still takes a few welcome adventurous turns. And the lyrics utilize repetition in an inventive way that might work better when stretched to an analyzable whole. But with plot and approach more in-the-box than its company, there was little there in this commendable effort to grab a more enraptured hold of.

The final source of excerpts wasn’t just conceived outside of the box – its engineer, the beguiling Rachel Peters, seems to have been born a plane trip away from it. She conveys a sort of friendly quirk that as a type is familiar, and her piece Companionship has friendliness and quirk in abundance. Against a pair of biographies, the sheer uniqueness of her concept is all the more impressive, though even from the few scenes it’s clear this is really an inventively twisted human drama, a character study of an overburdened creative – the inventive twist being an uncooked loaf of bread that comes to life, proceeding to express itself in broken English up and down gorgeous mezzo cadences. The dough, which greets strangers as “friend-friend” while mysteriously, randomly hinting at the ability to divulge a “great wise-dom”, has a distinct new-comedy cuteness, while her straight woman non-baker/caretaker hits the usual harried notes. These are easy roads to pleasing a crowd (it worked), but the setup is so novel, and the work and performances in this case so terrific, it instigates an instant impatience for its premiere. Around the wit of the premise and action, the music is stirringly imaginative, modestly working its myriad wonders.

Strong, professional and very game piano accompaniment was provided at this showcase by Emily Jarrell Urbanek and Stephen Carey, and the performing ensemble – which was uniformly restrained, due both to space and the fact that these presentations are subsequently put up for assessment by panel – all did wonderful, commendable work. Maren Weinberger and Jayden Goldberg were particularly memorable and inspired in Companionship, and Megan Koch shimmered with nuance as the lead in Mabel’s Call. And more than with just a formidable, well-utilized stature does Zachary James make an impression.

Who knows what I missed on Wednesday. But as the future’s current carries us forward, I encourage you to join me in stopping by Fort Worth two nights a year, to witness just what it’s inspiring, compelling and confounding those whose thoughts arrive in beautiful melodic cadences to compose into reality.