“The Medium” and Small Opera

Medium 1
The Medium: Maria Elena Armijo, Jeffery Roberson,
Peter Kendall Clark and Shannon Carson
Photo by Michael von Redlich

The OperaNow! Podcast has a semi-regular segment called “The Weekly Dirge” (not really weekly, despite the name). During this segment, the hosts and panelists-mostly opera singers and all opera cognoscenti-discuss opera companies around the country (and internationally) that have shortened seasons, cancelled productions, and even some that completely have gone under in the limp economy. And the past few years have been pretty dirgeful for many opera companies, big and small: from Baltimore’s Opera Vivente to Nevada Opera, from the New Jersey State Opera to Dallas Opera, and on and on.

Add to that the operatically dramatic and tragic travails of the New York City Opera, which are ongoing and depressing. And let’s not forget the demise of the beloved Amato Opera, which closed its doors on the Bowery for good in 2009.

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However, despite all this bad news, there is still an amazing amount of diverse opera being performed around New York. Let’s set aside The Metropolitan Opera, sui generis in all ways, which seems unfazed as it continues to bask in piles of money and epic grandeur. There continue to be many smaller, more circumspect and less encumbered opera companies and independent performances pushing forward. These smaller companies have the freedom to be cleverer than The Met and more experimental (with significantly cheaper tickets). I’ve written about Gotham Chamber Opera, but there are surprisingly many others. Over the past few years, in addition to Gotham, I’ve seen extraordinarily effective, if simply presented, opera performances by Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble, Operamission, The Opera Orchestra of New York, and even an excellent double bill of Rossini one-act comedies by Juilliard students.

Turandot & Carmelites
Grandeur: Turandot at The Met (top)
(credit: Ken Howard/The Metropolitan Opera)
Simplicity: Dialogues des carmélites at Dell’Arte
(credit: Angel Roy/Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble)

In broad terms, the only thing these smaller productions can be said to sacrifice is the sense of grand-opera theatrical spectacle delivered by The Met and major opera houses in other cities-not always a loss. While The Met’s breathtaking production of Puccini’s Turandot likely surpasses the opulence of the imperial China it recreates, Dell’Arte’s production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des carmélites found success with little more than folding chairs and white headbands evoking the Carmelite nuns’ habits.

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Gian Carlo Menotti‘s 1946 opera The Medium completed a two-week run last month at The Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater. The brief plot, here set in 1950s New Orleans, follows Madame Flora, a violent and alcoholic medium played by Jeffery Roberson (aka Varla Jean Merman), who finds herself driven mad when a real spirit visits one of her would-be fraudulent séances. Early on, Flora helpfully brandished a gun so we all knew how the opera would end. (If you introduce a gun in the first act…)

The Medium, as an opera, is quite modest, running only around an hour long and with really only two significant singing characters: Mme Flora and her daughter Monica. There are also three smaller parts for Flora’s séance customers and the silent role of Toby, Flora’s assistant and Monica’s love interest. A piano provided the music at the Little Theater, joined here and there by the talented Edmund Bagnell playing a violin on stage, in character as Toby.

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Roberson was game and committed. He does not possess an operatic voice, but he integrated that into the characterization, driving home the bitterness becoming insanity. In Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, for example (poor Donizetti must be spinning in his grave as I make this comparison), Lucia’s famous mad scene still requires perfectly exquisite bel canto singing. As she expires from insanity, we never hear the craziness in her voice; the coloratura, the phrasing, the tone quality all need to remain beautiful. For better or for worse, that is not a concern for The Medium, and Roberson definitely sold the emotional impact of Flora’s mental state. There’s a great interview with Roberson here.

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Medium 2
Stefanie Izzo and Edmund Bagnell
Photo by Michael von Redlich

As Monica, Stefanie Izzo does have an operatic voice, and, vocally, she was the runaway star of the show. She sang with expressive clarity and brought sympathetic humanity to the role by showing tenderness for Toby and filial duty tinged with fear for Flora.

Unlike many small opera performances, there was a full set, thoughtfully designed by Michael Steers. It was all Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-style pitched angles and just-right bric-a-brac. For the fake séances, Toby had a hiding place from which to make all the pictures on the walls slide up and down, as if manipulated by spirits. In a raised niche behind a stained glass window, Monica, lit ethereally and wearing a white dress, could impersonate the spirits of the séance customers’ dead children. While the singing was unamplified throughout the show, Monica had some reverb added to her voice while pretending to be the ghosts. During Flora’s episodes, when she heard the real ghost, a black light came on and previously invisible, fluorescent drips (of blood?) seeped from the ceiling across the set. Not subtle, but a clever trick. Carol Sherry’s smart costumes showed off mid-century styles.

This production of The Medium was originally developed for Provincetown, where Roberson is a big draw, and it is impressively ambitious. Presumably, the same Provincetown audience for whom this was meant would just as readily have come to a show of Roberson doing anything, so raising the stakes with an opera was not the obvious choice, but a welcome one.

I wouldn’t call Menotti’s opera or this production “experimental” in the avant-garde sense, but it is fair to think of the casting of Roberson as a curious experiment. This experiment remains positively tame, though, compared to the staging this past summer of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo in Berlin, starring the generally magnificent Peaches, a Canadian rock/punk/rap/performance art singer who lives in that city. (I did not see this L’Orfeo. Alas.) Both performances were conceived around a non-opera-singer prima donna (in the non-pejorative sense). Both singers played the title role and neither is of the same gender as that character. Both casts were filled out with trained singers. But while Roberson delivered the role essentially straightforwardly, Peaches in L’Orfeo veers toward something I might call post-opera.

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Peaches L'Orfeo
Peaches (center) as Orfeo / Photo by Dorothea Tuch

The Medium is a minor and obscure work, but Peaches’ team took aim at a venerable monument of opera. While not a staple of the mainstream operatic repertoire, L’Orfeo, written in 1607, stands as one of the first extant examples of the nascent art form. There is plenty of room in contemporary opera performance tradition to experiment with new settings and new concepts for even the most canonical works. Peaches, however, careers well beyond that. (And just because an opera is old and important does not mean that it is staid or dry, even without Peaches.) Her turn as Orfeo was, generously, not a critical success. Part of the deal when artists experiment with live performance is the possibility that it might not work out, but it was radical and exciting as an idea. The valor of the experiment might be more important, at least in this case, than the actual delivery of the performances. She and the artistic team engaged with an operatic touchstone; transformed it, intervened in it and made it their own; and then performed that new thing as the opera with which they began.

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Peaches took voice lessons and studied Italian in preparation for her operatic turn; she also composed a rap song, “Sick Bitch,” that she added to Monteverdi’s delicate, sophisticated music. Which is jaw-droppingly ballsy. Based on reviews, photos and video clips, elements of this Berlin L’Orfeo were intentionally unpleasant and provocatively shocking.

Casting non-operatic singers to sing opera is a production concept best employed reticently and rarely. However, these two productions show that creative experiments like this add constructively to the variety possible in opera performances by small companies with the freedom and agility to see their experiments through to the stage.