Sunday, May 3, 2015

Fort Worth Dog Show

Lauren Worsham as Lisa and John Kelly as Prince
Photo courtesy Fort Worth Opera
On Friday night I was fortunate to see Dog Days, a new opera by composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek, at the Fort Worth Opera Festival.  Dog Days was first produced in 2012. The story is of a family trying to stay together and preserve a normal life as the country is thrown into chaos by war on U.S. soil. There is no work, and food consists of a box of rations abruptly dropped from a helicopter periodically, along with whatever they can forage. For all practical purposes the family is trapped in their very traditional home, for travel to escape the city is impossible, and there is little reason to even go outside. They cling with differing amounts of desperation and rationality to the idea of staying together as a family. The hymn-like grace the family sings as if on auto-pilot at every meal gives pathetic evidence of the emptiness of their lives from the beginning, and grows more ragged as the family grows more desperate. Kudos to Mr. Little and director Robert Woodruff for that and a thousand other details that added up to a riveting show.

The family is accustomed to beggars at their door for what little food they have, but the appearance of a man who costumes himself as a stray dog and acts more like a dog than a man incites surprisingly strong and diverse reactions from the family members. Howard, the father, is enraged by the appearance of the dog-man, while Lisa, his daughter, is at first repulsed but then finds in the dog a good listener and even a friend. She names the dog Prince.

Marnie Breckenridge and James Bobick
Photo courtesy Fort Worth Opera
I call myself a bel canto bear, and I've written before that I'm not qualified to evaluate new music, but I must say I liked this opera. Critic Jeffrey Edelstein writes in the program: "While the music is energetic and amplified—a cloisonné of rock and Broadway vernacular held within outlines formed from classical styles—it conveys the feeling of traditional operative recitative and aria." The chamber ensemble Newspeak, under conductor Alan Pierson, were a sometimes subtle, sometimes raucous accompaniment to the singing and acting on stage. The sound design of Garth MacAleavey also played a very important role.

I can not praise the performers highly enough! James Bobick as Howard was gruff and desperate in his attempt to maintain normalcy and family life. His vocal lines sometimes showed that desperation with extreme high range, but his singing was never unpleasant or "yell-y", and in fact was quite beautiful most of the time. Marnie Breckenridge was equally outstanding as the Mother, who cooks and cleans and feeds her family like an automaton. When she allows herself to feel she is paralyzed, only able to move in reaction to her family's needs or orders. Also a very fine singer, Ms. Breckenridge sang the often but not always lyric lines of her role beautifully.

Lauren Worsham as Lisa
Photo: Fort Worth Opera
The real star of the show was Lauren Worsham as the young daughter Lisa. With two older brothers who keep to themselves and parents overwhelmed by their own lives, Lisa has a very lonely existence, so she welcomes the dog as a listener. She reminds me of Anne Frank at times. Lisa has extended monologues in which she reveals her deepest thoughts and feelings, which Ms. Worsham sang and acted with amazing dexterity and beauty. Lisa's mirror aria, in which she exults that starvation has finally allowed her to achieve beauty, was a marvel both in Ms. Worsham's performance and in the audience experience. Lisa's actual reflection is projected on a screen as she carries the mirror about. The audience experiences an uncomfortable level of intimacy with Lisa. (Projections by Video Engineer Eamonn Farrell are used just as effectively throughout the show.)

John Kelly was remarkable in his portrayal of the dog. Always on all fours except in his last moments, he acted and reacted as a dog always. His simple but mangy-looking costume of tattered pants and furry shirt (all costumes were by Victoria Tzykun, and his wig was by Anne Ford-Coates) added to his dog appearance and character.

The cast is rounded out by Michael Marcotte and Peter Tantsits as Elliott and Pat, the two teenage boys. They are up to no good, of course, and at one point are brought home by the Army Captain played by Cherry Duke. All three were worth watching and hearing.

I regret there is only one more performance of this amazing opera, on May 9. If you haven't seen it, I would urge you to go.

Postscript:  When I saw the show Friday night I was thinking analytically.  When I wrote this review and posted it, I was thinking analytically.  When I later told a friend about the show, I couldn't talk about it without tears.

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