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There is an audience for new opera out here on the prairie. Fargo-Moorhead Opera staged two world premieres this past weekend: Buried Alive (music by Jeff Myers, libretto by Quincy Long) and Embedded (music by Patrick Soluri, libretto by Deborah Brevoort). Both are part of American Lyric Theater’s Poe Project, in which creative teams were commissioned to write operas inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe. The operas staged in Fargo used a group of six singers and a chamber orchestra.

Buried Alive is a paraphrase of Poe’s short story “The Premature Burial,” with modern twists. Baritone Christopher Burchett brought a powerful voice to the role of Victor, an artist haunted by nightmares that he would be mistaken for dead and buried alive. Soprano Sara Gartland was his wife Elena, deeply concerned about her husband’s descent into madness. Musically, Myers’s score was deeply affective, with special mention for the trio in the embalming scene (a darkly humorous gigue sung with great panache by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Feinstein, tenor Jonathan Blalock, and soprano Caroline Worra) and Victor’s aria “O death.” On stage but silent for most of the proceedings was bass Nathan Stark’s gravedigger, who provided the narrative frame. (The general manager apologized on behalf of Stark just before the opera, saying he was under the weather. You would not have known this from the performance, however.) Long’s libretto captures the feel of Poe’s original, and in some cases uses words drawn explicitly from the story.

Embedded
takes “The Cask of Amontillado” and spins it into a satirical look at TV news, fame, and aging. Caroline Worra showed considerable skill as news anchor Sylvia Malow, the “most trusted name in news.” Jonathan Blalock brought humor, clarity, and a huge makeup case as Sylvia’s assistant Maurice. Sara Gartland was the up-and-coming “reporter on the go,” Victoria Reilly, whom Sylvia (rightly so, as it turns out) views as a threat. Christopher Burchett was the producer for the newscast (and an implied paramour for Victoria, helping her move up the ranks to dethrone Sylvia). Jennifer Feinstein did double duty as the camerawoman for the newscast and as the voice of the GPS (without giving away too much of the plot, a GPS is involved). Rounding out the cast, Nathan Stark played the Italian terrorist Montresor (a nod to the narrator/protagonist of Poe’s short story). This was grand opera in miniature, with Soluri’s inventive score flowing seamlessly to and from cheesy cable-news promo music, a witty and inventive tango involving Sylvia, Montresor, and cell phones, and a soaring aria. This is Sylvia’s story; indeed, the opera is almost a monodrama for soprano, and it was done with amazing skill by Worra, who should be a household name in the world of opera. Librettist Breevort inverts Poe’s original plot – without giving away too much, the alleged victim achieves a triumph of sorts over the killer and other demons.

Both works showed skillful direction both on stage (Lawrence Edelson directed Buried Alive, Sam Helfrich directed Embedded) and in the pit (where maestro Kostis Protopapas led a chamber orchestra of eighteen players). The staging, by Zane Pihlstrom, was contemporary without being overwrought or gimmicky. A group of suspended screens and one larger, more rectangular surface were used to great effect in both works, with Victor’s madness shown in abstract designs and close-ups of a human eye in the first work, and wonderfully meta newscasts in the second (I wish CNN would run a story on a fight for the remains of Edgar Allan Poe!).

As many major American opera companies are leaving the scene, perhaps it will be up to these smaller companies (F-M Opera’s annual budget is less than $500,000) to maintain the long tradition of commissioning new operatic works. Audience response was overwhelmingly positive, and the Reineke Festival Concert Hall on the campus of North Dakota State University was filled to near-capacity. There was nothing parochial or low-rent about this production. There is an audience for new opera, and perhaps it is in unexpected places like Fargo.

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(A few introductory words: I teach theory and composition at The University of Minnesota, Morris. I’m originally from Pinhook, IN – pop. 19 – and hold degrees from Morehead [KY] State University and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. I blog on matters musical, political and random at Walk In Brain. I’ve been composing for nearly three decades, and occasionally some of it gets heard. I want to thank Steve for giving me the space. There’s some good stuff happening out here in the hinterlands, and if you’re doing something interesting within, oh, 3 – 6 hours of Morris, MN let me know about it. – Wes Flinn)

Ensemble 61

When I took the job at UMM, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find fellow composers and new music. (We are pretty far out here, after all.) I need not have worried. Last night I drove over to Central Square (a converted high school) in Glenwood to hear “Water Music,” a performance by Ensemble 61, a new-music group out of the Twin Cities led by composer Kirsten Broberg and percussionist Erik Barsness.

There’s something wonderfully “only in America” about contemporary music in a small-town high school auditorium. I immediately thought of Charles Ives who, though not represented in the composers last night, would no doubt have approved. The show opened with what is now standard new-music repertoire – George Crumb‘s Vox Balaenae. Linda Chatterton deftly tackled the flute/vocal opening, and cellist Joel Salvo (a colleague at UMM) nailed the seagull effects. Pianist Matthew McCright handled the extended inside-the-instrument challenges effectively, and apart from some minor synchronization issues Crumb’s work was given a solid reading.

Soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw performed two songs for unaccompanied singer by Jarrad Powell – “the rain of the white valley” and “i am rain.” The songs, chosen for their connection to the larger theme of the evening, were quite haunting. Unaccompanied voice is always a risk, and Henneman Shaw rose to the challenge. The hall’s acoustics weren’t much help to her, unfortunately. I was seated toward the front, and even as close as I was the enunciation was problematic. Given that I could hear how clearly she was pronouncing the words, I can only chalk it up to the hall.

The first half closed with Magnus Lindberg‘s Steamboat Bill, Jr. for clarinet and cello, a post-modern tour-de-force inspired by the Buster Keaton movie of the same name and performed with considerable verve by clarinetist Paul Schimming and cellist Salvo.

The second half opened with former Minnesotan Jesse Langen playing Morgan Krauss‘s I Water, I Night for solo guitar. As with the solo voice works, it was beautifully done and possibly swallowed up in the back of the hall. Langen pointed out beforehand that the dynamic never exceeded mezzo forte; I do hope the back was able to hear how well he performed the work.

The final piece was co-founder Kirsten Broberg‘s The Waters of Time, a setting of six sonnets – in the original Spanish – by Pablo Neruda. The instrumentation was Pierrot-plus-percussion, so in addition to the above players the ensemble featured violinist Emilia Mettenbrink and Barsness on percussion. I did not know Broberg’s music beforehand, but now I want to know more of it. This was a sensitive, beautiful work that took advantage of the capabilities of the ensemble. I would like to single out Henneman Shaw and Schimming in particular for their contributions.

I have been out here on the prairie for exactly six weeks today. If I get the chance to hear new music once every six months, I’m thrilled. Broberg mentioned the group was taking this concert on a tour of Minnesota (they have just a couple more stops, including one in Fergus Falls in mid-October). It’s exciting to be in a state where even more isolated areas like here have a thriving music scene. Between all the concerts at UMM and groups that come out of the Twin Cities and Fargo, I don’t think I’ll ever want for the good stuff.

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