7th ANNUAL FRONTIERS FESTIVALfeaturing
DEATH OF A PLAYBOY
by Brian M. Rosen
BEHOLD THE MAN
by Paul Fowler & Andrew Flack
by Tony Solitro
by Patrick Soluri & Deborah Brevoort
THE HATFIELD MCCOY TRIPTYCHS
by Steven Aldredge
Fort Worth Opera
Erik Earl Larson
Forth Worth Botanical Garden
Reviewed Performance: 5/8/2019
Reviewed by Ryan Maffei, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The first selection in the 2019 lineup, Brian M. Rosen’s Death of a Playboy, illustrates the problem well. The play tackles Hugh Hefner’s death by deigning to dramatize scenes from his funeral. Guests, who are of course old associates generally divisible between women with Bunny badges and men with cad cards, speak offhandedly between formal speeches about Hefner’s oft-probed significance, and the dialogue is a rote retread of everything you know about both sides (anti-exploitation vs. anti-censorship), except it’s delivered in skillful operatic voice, set to melody lines which meander just enough to remind you this is classical music and intended to be difficult. The notion of emulating conversational flow with freeform rhythm and dalliances with atonality has precedent, but here it just seems ponderous and contrived. As my partner pointed out, it also shows up colloquial English as less equipped to bear and cut through the weight of portentous vibrato than some of the syllabic ballet built into, say, Italian. A key speech is just spoken outright, as the pianist drags fingers across sustained strings. It’s kind of cool; that’s all.
A much more successful piece seems to be the affable Paul Fowler and Andrew Flack’s Behold the Man, which delightfully resurrects a meme you most certainly remember – an older woman of no professional artistic designation unwittingly but unsurprisingly defaced an old fresco, so as to earn derisive monikers like “Monkey Jesus”. It turns out that here in real life, the misguided move transformed via the internet into a town-saving tourism impetus, and the writers met with the woman and sought to dramatize her eventual success in a sympathetic fashion. It’s a terrific story that earns the scope of an opera, and the authors strike just the right balance between sprinkles of popular musical-oriented tricks (every show this bill teases would make a terrific Broadway musical) and conventionally explorative, reliably pretty classical settings. Many of the performers got to flex great strengths here, especially Janani Sridhar. The librettist has clearly sought to emulate a buoyant, occasionally snarky “internet”-style tone, and as with all attempts by pre-millennial artists to do so it is incisive with an admixture of self-sabotaging.
Triangle by Tony Solitro is sitcom silly. The premise is promising on paper and wears thin with repetition – a literary major is caught in a love triangle and sees being a bookworm as a strategic advantage, until she meets Aphrodite and watches the literary turn literal. The whole thing is too agreeable, and was too spiritedly played by Meredith Browning, Jonathan Walker-VanKuren and Frontiers veteran (forgive me if there are others) Heather Weinrich to dislike. But fifteen minutes landing on a groan felt like the whole fluffy, superfluous thing in a tidy bow, and finally begged the question, what merits status of elevation to an opera? If the medium is not itself “bigger” than others, it is contingent on a certain performative bigness. Is the juxtaposition of material like this with a style like that merely silly? Does it require self-reflexive commentary to overlook, and must you overlook it to properly adjudicate (or enjoy) the work? Is my seeing it as a distraction subjective? And why argue with surely the only operaticization in history of the line “fuck your brains out”? On these questions, and too many others, turns the world.
Patrick Soluri and Deborah Brevoort’s Albert Nobbs is as spirited, thankfully, its source having done time as literal Oscar bait and potentially wearing the weight and constriction of its title character’s social and wardrobe trappings. Though still elegantly furnished and not in the least bit ignorant of gravity, Nobbs is a more expressly communicative piece of musical work than most of its cousins in this year’s Frontiers, and though I was in a stellar mood (it was my birthday), the selections presented felt to me expedient, convicted and carefully crafted enough to occupy that beguiling space between something consciously popular – accessible, at least, within a classical milieu – and something purely inventive. Soluri is prone to stately cadences that suit the material, and Elizabeth Barnes navigated them all with grace. Deborah Brevoort sifts out the premise’s valuable topicality while maintaining barriers of taste her co-author’s style invites, which might under different circumstances prove a more frustrating experience.
The Hatfield-McCoy Triptychs, by the very capable Steven Aldredge, made an ambitious and frequently affecting coda to two short evenings more selections may have easily justified driving out longer for. But it had a sincerity that telegraphed the drag of its relative length in its number of less surprising sections. Aldredge is a beautiful composer, but dewy-eyed glances through Americana, amplified with patriarchal drama and violence, are for me tickets worth looking askance at. That said, as boy as the whole concept feels to me, this was an impressive showcase for the numerous and very game female performers the festival boasted. The absence of mandolins and such was rarely obtrusive to the effort of buying into the experience, and many of Aldredge’s cadences are nothing if not sumptuous. But on the nagging, almost-subconscious question of whether or not I would rather be at something along the lines of Oklahoma! – an occasionally annoying totem which at least does not announce its own importance the way opera is designed to (historically, and hey, no shame) – wasn’t an easy tackle, and it remains unsettled.
None of these offenses, or shades thereof, are enough to discourage attendance (or underwriting) of this fabulous festival. The talent onstage is often indistinguishable from flawless, and one attribute I’ve ignored that tends to balance opera’s requisite timeworn gild is that the audience for admiring it and appreciating it for what it is has shrunk. That people are making efforts to infuse a rigidly conceived, consciously grandiose art form with modern human banalities and curiosities is one of the most logical directions for any self-appointed opera stewards to take. But this is the same impulse that long ago engendered, goosed even, younger art forms better suited to portray such compelling components of real life. It needn’t be a simplicity and volume-unafraid pop song or hyper-vérité play to get the point across, since so many of life emotions are too ginormous and tremulous for anything but an operatic representation. But the marriage needs to function, Figaro, and nothing among the available range of venues or attendees will serve to mask or miss the moments it doesn’t quite come together.