Northern Exposure: Washington chamber operas entice Oregonians

In Music of Remembrance’s 'After Life,' Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso duel; Vashon Opera's 'Albert Herring' serves up big fun on a small scale.


Music of Remembrance’s After Life: Stein and Picasso duel over art and morality


How do art and moral responsibility intersect? Or do they?

That’s the endlessly intriguing debate enacted in the new chamber opera After Life, whose world premier was staged on a Monday in early May in a small-ish recital hall at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall. Two weeks later, After Life played to a sell-out crowd in San Francisco’s Temple El-Manuel.

After Life, complicated by the two-word interpretation of the title implying hungering for life, rather than the dreary afterlife, is a set piece for discussion of the Holocaust. And why not? Music of Remembrance commissioned the opera from rising-star composer Tom Cipullo, whose Glory Denied made Opera News’ top 2014 list. The 17-year-old Seattle-based organization’s mission is to keep the music of the Holocaust alive.

Catherine Cook and Robert Orth in 'After Life.' Photo: Michael Beaton.

Catherine Cook and Robert Orth in ‘After Life.’ Photo: Michael Beaton.

Directed by Erich Parce, the one act, 58-minute chamber opera comes fully alive with Bellingham-born poet David Mason’s elegant libretto and the three singers’ vigorously rendered portrayals of mid-century giants: “rose-is-a-rose-is-a rose” writer Gertrude Stein and short, yet bigger-than-life artist Pablo Picasso. The third character is a nameless teen-aged orphan, who at one time, sold a rose to Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas. She did not survive the Holocaust, though the artists did, and therein lies the drama.

The conversation occurs in a post-Holocaust and after-life conversation between Picasso (sung by the infinitely versatile baritone Robert Orth) and Stein (mezzo Catherine Cook). Cook brilliantly portrays a dowdy, self-involved and insistent writer/cutting-edge public figure.

“Genius: Did somebody say my name?” Stein sings at the beginning of the piece. And later, “Have they learned to read me?”

She thrusts a copy of Time magazine, her face on its cover, into Picasso’s face. And Picasso, unmoved and recalcitrant — above it all — justifies his art and egomaniacal behavior by singing, “I was an artist of war,” referencing “Guernica,” among other pieces. Wearing his iconic striped t-shirt, he sings, impressed with his masculinity, chest out, that he is “After life, after love. I bathed in the sun. … A bull and a woman can make a new world. El toro! El rey!”

Catherine Cook and Robert Orth in 'After Life.' Photo: Michael Beaton.

Catherine Cook and Robert Orth in ‘After Life.’ Photo: Michael Beaton.

The two artists confront each other with searing questions of why and how each survived in Nazi-occupied France. Stein was a Jew and moved to the French countryside and occasionally edited Nazi sympathizer work. Picasso, though he and his art were considered “degenerate” by the Nazi regime, continued to paint prolifically. “Art is for life,” they sing in duet.

In the last 15 minutes of their argument over mortality and morality — “Who will remember us?” is their major concern — an orphaned girl (nuanced-voiced soprano Ava Pine) who perished namelessly in the war, joins in the discussion, arriving almost mystically from out of the blue. She walks down the aisle, involving the audience. Until she reaches the stage.

It is she who shows us the folly of Stein and Picasso’s bombastic and inflated egos. “I don’t remember myself,” she sings in her clear, poignant, almost girlish soprano. “Why did I die?”

The score calls for flute, violin, piano, cello and clarinet, played here by a chamber ensemble led by Seattle Symphony’s youthful associate conductor Stilian Kirov. Despite its weighty themes, the light-touch, clever music kept the opera from sinking into heavy-handedness, avoiding yet another gloomy reminder of the unforgivable time.

One quibble: Although the sparse and spare scenery, conjuring up a ‘40s-era artist’s garret, worked, it was uninteresting visually; you could see where the budget was limited. The props, oddly, including a 1945 first edition of Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, were available for purchase. Suggested donation: $40.

Aside from subtitles getting bollixed up for a short period of time – not a big deal since the piece was sung in English — the opera was inventive, pitch-perfect, thought-provoking and refreshing. It proved a sweet relief from the Don Giovannis and Carmens that I’ve seen lately. We were lucky to have it make its impressive debut in the Northwest.

Angela Allen lives in Portland writes about the arts, primarily opera, jazz and photography. She pursues poetry and photography and occasionally teaches creative writing in Portland schools.  


Vashon Opera’s Albert Herring: Big fun on a small scale


Who’d’a thunk it? Benjamin Britten on Vashon Island?

Well, we are believers now. Vashon Opera, a small production company founded 10 years ago, boasts all the ingredients needed to cook up a stellar opera: excellent orchestra, compelling cast of singer/actors; and a truly outstanding conductor, James Brown, who heads the Voice Department at Pacific Lutheran University.

Vashon Herring

Brendan Tuohy leads the cast of Vashon Opera’s ‘Albert Herring.’ Photo: Peter Serko.

“I am keen to develop a new art form (the chamber opera, or what you will) which will stand beside the grand opera as the (string) quartet stands beside the orchestra,” Britten wrote in 1946. “I hope to write many works for it.” The great English composer determined to write and produce operas for a small cast and orchestra, which could be staged outside the traditional large opera house, an added advantage.

His first attempt, The Rape of Lucretia, did not go well. Reviews were tepid, and money was lost. Britten, though, had confidence in his new and pragmatic direction and followed the tragic Lucretia with an upbeat comedy. This was Albert Herring, a rustic parody that gently mocks some of the stock characters of Victorian English society, with a hint of Gilbert and Sullivan.

The story revolves around a coming turn of the century (1900) May Day celebration in Loxford. A meeting is held to elect a May Day Queen, but due to the alleged lack of virtue of the proposed female candidates, and as a last resort, Superintendent Budd proposes the novel idea of a male May Queen. His nomination: Albert Herring, a clerk at his mother’s green grocery, and a total naif.

In Act II, Albert is crowned. The two romantic characters, Sid and Nancy, spike Albert’s lemonade with run, and Albert brightens considerably. Tipsy from the augmented lemonade, Albert returns to the green grocery, and overhears Sid and Nancy gossiping about how he’s a mama’s boy. Albert decides to take his 25 sovereigns prize for being May King, and go out on the town.

In Act III, Albert is missing from the grocery, and the worst is suspected. But as a funeral dirge is sung, a bedraggled Albert appears and describes his pub crawl of the night before. Amidst the shock of the town folk at his libertine behavior, the now-liberated Albert assumes control of his mother’s store.

Music director Brown’s conducting was empathic, trenchant, and well paced throughout the show. A tenor himself, he looks like he is enjoying himself and the music at all times. All the cast members were not only first-rate singers, but evenly matched, even the three children who are part of the dramatis personae. Portland’s own Konstantin Kvach and Beth Madsen Bradford played, respectively, the Constable, and the old fuddy-duddy, Florence, and both were in fine voice.

This is really a tenor opera though, with two on stage and one in the pit. Brendan Tuohy, as Herring, was convincing as a shy, pantywaist 30-going-on 13-stooge to his domineering mother. His lyric, silver-toned voice was perfect for the part. The other tenor, Anthony Webb, who played Mr. Upfold, had a laser-like brilliance to his voice. Andrew Krikawa, who founded the company in 2005, has a splendidly focused and wide-ranging baritone voice.

The women were no less accomplished. Elizabeth Peterson made a perfectly appropriate, domineering matriarch; Marie Masters, a diaphanously overstuffed doyenne of a certain age; and Jordan McClellan was a well-cast foil as Sid’s girlfriend, who by turns makes out with Sid and makes Albert jealous — and curious.

With a masterful production, comparable to what we’ve seen in New York, London, or Portland, coupled with a perfectly sumptuous comic opera by a British master, it added up to a perfect evening.

I hope you will go next season. One caveat: if you do, be aware that the last ferry leaves at 10:50 PM, too early to be able to stay for the entire show (until 11 PM in our case). An AirBnB provided just the solution. Up next morning, hot tub, breakfast, a visit to the island’s 100 year old coffee shop, and back to Tacoma!

Portland choral conductor Bruce Browne has directed the choral programs for Portland State University, Portland Symphonic Choir, and many other choruses.

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