As One at Marigny Opera House
After many years of four-opera seasons, New Orleans Opera has been expanding its programming, commendably, with its Chamber Opera Series.
In 2016, NOO presented Brundibár, a children’s opera that had been performed in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, in a memorable, fully staged production at the WWII Museum.
Earlier this year at the Marigny Opera House, NOO offered the New Orleans premiere of As One, which relates a transgender woman’s journey from youth to young adulthood with humor and sensitivity.
Conceived by composer Laura Kaminsky and with a libretto by Mark Campbell and transgender filmmaker Kimberly Reed, As One uses two singers to portray Hannah, a baritone (Hannah Before) and a mezzo-soprano (Hannah After).
In 80 minutes, As One depicts Hannah’s experiences as she endeavors to resolve the discord between herself and the outside world. Inspired in part by the life experiences of Reed, As One is divided into three sections: Hannah’s childhood in a small town, her college years on the West Coast, and finally learning about herself in Norway.
Kaminsky has scored As One for a string quartet which seems apt for this small of scale, yet consequential, work. Lush intricate passages alternate with spiky, edgy ones that define Hannah’s initially conflicted feelings. A shift to minor keys accentuates Hannah’s yearning for understanding and acceptance. Magnificent passages of churning, multi-note runs convey her confusion as she learns about sex and gender dysphoria.
While Kaminsky uses complicated instrumental lines to underscore equally complicated emotions, Hannah’s vocal lines are melodious, beautifully so, and character-defining, unlike many other contemporary operas where they oftentimes come off as arbitrary.
Like Hannah herself, the libretto is a bit bifurcated. When Campbell and Reed stick to specific incidents and details, As One draws us into its world and we follow eagerly.
In Act One, songs about handwriting and a John Donne poem pinpoint how Hannah sees her situation and reflects on it. There’s also a marvelous passage in a library where Hannah goes to look up “transgender” (though that word is never mentioned) and, instead, in order to hide this curiosity, becomes an expert on the Transvaal.
Similarly, for most of Act Two, Campbell and Reed precisely locate the stations of Hannah’s journey as she attends college, is–happily–mistaken for a woman, and makes the decision to undergo hormone therapy (“As if one puberty weren’t awkward enough,” a line I love.). Her letter to her parents, who don’t know that she’s transitioning (though her mother suspects something’s going on), offering plausible excuses as to why she won’t be coming home for Christmas (not enough money, too busy), is heartbreaking while avoiding sentimentality.
Occasionally, however, the words turn generic and As One loosens its grip on the audience.
While Hannah may indeed have been an over-achieving “perfect boy,” we’ve heard this trope before and the lyrics of this song flirt with cliche. Later, in the second act, Hannah escapes a transphobic assault; while of course such terrible things sadly occur, it feels shoehorned in solely to provide a motivating cause for Hannah’s subsequent actions. A concurrent listing of names of transwomen who have been murdered throughout the world is a touching tribute to them, but results in the dramatic narrative going slack.
The final section, set in Norway where Hannah has gone for solitude and self-reflection, gives her a gorgeous aria that contemplates the wisdom she’s attained, yet it could’ve been almost anyone’s summing up of their quest for self-knowledge. I would’ve preferred if, perhaps, there had been some resolution with her familial relationships.
For such an intimate work, Frances Rabalais’ direction, using only two chairs and a gray sheet to stand in for a variety of props, was appropriately simple and mostly effective. Had she had more rehearsal time, I suspect she would have found even more nuances for her staging.
Brenda Patterson brought an aching poignancy to Hannah After, spinning out line after line of Kaminsky’s splendid music. In this thoughtful performance, Hannah’s internal conflicts subtly rippled across her face.
As Hannah Before, Luis Alejandro Orozco also sang with fine distinction and a tone that had the richness of a woodwind instrument. Yet, in Part I, he fell into the trap, that often besets less experienced actors asked to play children, of scrunching up his face and overexaggerating Hannah’s emotions. Fortunately, this subsided once we got to Hannah’s college years in Part II.
Proving he’s just as incisive and insightful with a contemporary chamber opera as he is with Verdi and Wagner, NOO Artistic Director Robert Lyall conducted The Polymnia Quartet with passion and assurance. Founded by local musicians in 2015, the Polymnia played this often challenging score with superb musicianship.
The Polymnia Quartet again appeared under Maestro Lyall’s baton as part of the extraordinary ensemble for Astor Piazzolla’s tango opera María de Buenos Aires that the NOO presented during Ambush’s hiatus. I loved Piazzolla’s intoxicating music. Horacio Ferrer’s libretto, with its surreal plot focusing on the experiences of a prostitute in Buenos Aires, was, well, interesting. Judging from the enthusiastic response in the sold-out ballroom at the JW Marriott Hotel, where the two-performance run occurred, audiences here wish there were more such tango operas.
So a hearty “Bravo” to New Orleans Opera for bringing As One and María de Buenos Aires to “America’s first city of opera” and for making the commitment to continue the Chamber Series with George White eld Chadwick’s waggish operetta Tabasco in January and Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium in June. Along with the mainstage productions of Offenbach’s comic Orpheus in the Underworld (coming up Nov. 10 & 12 at the Mahalia Jackson Theater), Terence Blanchard’s new jazz opera Champion about boxer Emile Griffith and a 75th Anniversary Celebration concert in the spring, this season promises to be a transcendent one for opera in New Orleans.
America’s Wartime Sweethearts: A Tribute to The Andrews Sisters at the WWII Museum’s Stage Door Canteen
This show returns with Wednesday matinee performances through November 22; it will then resume in January and continue until February 28. Here are excerpts from my review which originally ran in October 2014.
America’s Wartime Sweethearts: A Tribute to The Andrews Sisters is a sprightly hour-long introduction to a group that virtually defined the World War II era. Following other such revues that paid tribute to Frank Sinatra and Louis Prima, the Canteen’s Director of Entertainment Victoria Reed has discovered just the right ratio of words to music for these entertainments. With over 30 numbers, the balance rightly tilts towards the music but along the way we learn that oldest sister Laverne was the only one who could read music; the trio recorded over 600 tunes, sold over 90 million records and was the best selling group during WWII; and that they were inspired by the Boswell Sisters of New Orleans.
After covering songs like Alexander’s Ragtime Band, they scored their first hit with Bei Mir Bist Du Schön, the most popular song of 1938. From then on, they performed with some of the top bands in the land; joined Glenn Miller on his radio show; entertained troops all over the country; and appeared in countless movies.
Reed’s supple direction unobtrusively keeps Sweethearts moving along fluidly while occasionally getting audience members involved for a little dancing with the featured performers, the Canteen’s in-house trio, the Victory Belles. Reed’s inclusion of clips from some of the Sisters’ films is a nice touch. Heidi Malnar’s choreography is simple but period-appropriate and inventively enhances the vocals.
With their creamy voices and terrific harmonies, the Belles gorgeously recreate the sound of that era without slavishly imitating the Andrews Sisters. The three of them effortlessly shift from a polka medley to a Latin one while capturing the differing styles of each Sister.
From Rum and Coca Cola to Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, four generations after these songs sat at the top of the hit parade, they still hold up as archetypal pop tunes. The Andrews Sisters may have been “America’s Wartime Sweethearts,” but if there’s any justice, the catchy songs they made famous will live on forever.
Known for their previous blood splatter shows (Evil Dead: The Musical, Musical of the Living Dead), See ‘Em On Stage: A Production Company presents William Shakespeare’s violent tragedy Titus Andronicus at The AllWays Theatre (2240 St. Claude Ave.) through November 5.
Regarded as “Shakespeare’s bloodiest play,” Andronicus tells the ctional story of the Roman army general Titus, who becomes caught in a cycle of revenge with the alluring and destructive Tamora, Queen of the Goths. “Gallons of fake blood” are promised to bring this classic tale of murder to life just in time for the Halloween season. And if you thought Sweeney Todd’s meat pies were nasty, wait till you see Titus’s.
Christopher Bentivegna directs Ron Gural as Titus, Trina Beck as Tamora plus Monica Harris, Clint Johnson, Mary Pauley, Levi Hood, Kali Russell, Kyle Woods, Eli Timm, Khiry Armstead, Kirk Jonathan, and Matt Story among others.
JPAS and Loyola’s Theatre Department collaborate for the first time to give the regional premiere of Caroline, or Change by Tony (Angels in America) Kushner and Jeanine (Fun Home) Tesori.
This award-winning musical takes place in Lake Charles, Kushner’s hometown, centering around two families, one Jewish and one African-American, as they navigate some of the greatest social movements of the 1960s, and a friendship develops between a young boy and his family’s maid.
Troi Bechet heads the cast under Laura Hope’s direction. Caroline plays until November 5 at JPAS’ Westwego Performing Arts Theatre (177 Sala Ave.).
Theater Lab NOLA brings back Fred Nuccio’s production of Beirut by Alan Bowne. Only this time, instead of being done at Mid City Theatre, you’ll go thru the Outlaw Pizza Company entrance (814 S. Peters St.) to get to the theater which used to be the dressing room area for the dearly departed True Brew Theatre. You’ll find, not surprisingly, a small space but in NOLA’s venue-challenged times, any new locale is a welcome one.
One of the signature AIDS themed plays of the late 1980s, Beirut takes place in an apocalyptic future where a young man named Torch has been removed to a dark, squalid room after testing positive for a nameless, sexually transmitted disease. His uninfected girlfriend, Blue, makes the dangerous journey across the quarantine line to be with him and, for the next hour, they engage in a desperate apache dance of love, sex and death.
Newcomers Jason Piglia and Isabel Groedel star as Torch and Blue. In July, Theater Lab NOLA delivered an excellent production of Nick Payne’s thought-provoking play Constellations in the same space. Let’s hope they do so again. You can find out November 2-19.
And not sure if there’ll be a desperate apache dance of love, sex and death at Café Istanbul (2372 St. Claude Ave.) on November 9 and 10, but international drag chanteuse and petty criminal Varla Jean Merman will be hosting SuperPower Summit of Talent, the New Orleans debut of comic canary Deven Green. This delightfully daffy diva duo promise to provide laughs and alliterations galore. A veritable human jukebox, Ms. Green sings songs ranging from the 17th century up to today’s hot hits, all the while accompanying herself on the ukulele.
General Admission tickets are $25. VIP Meet & Greet tix are $40 and include center seating, a post-show reception with the starlets, a special commemorative memento from Ms. Green, and a lingering infection from Ms. Merman. In which case, you might be removed to Beirut.