Seattle Opera Barber of Seville

A kind of shelter: Renegade Opera’s ‘American Patriots’ and ‘She Loves You Back’

The local opera company’s Artists in Conversation Festival featured Samantha Rose Williams’ interview-based staged song cycle and music by Oregon composer Lisa Neher.

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L to R: Samantha Rose Williams, Annie Sherman and Robert Wesley Mason in Renegade Opera's production of "American Patriots." Photo courtesy of Renegade Opera.
L to R: Samantha Rose Williams, Annie Sherman and Robert Wesley Mason in Renegade Opera’s production of “American Patriots.” Photo by Tom Lupton.

Renegade Opera staged their Artists in Conversation festival back on November 18 and 19 at the Alberta House. The weekend saw two stagings each for two opera-theater productions: American Patriots and She Loves you Back. Both of these are considered works-in-progress, and both allowed audience members to ask questions afterwards about the projects and where the artists see them going in the coming months and years.

American Patriots

American identity is not one based on one’s ethnicity or religion or language, despite what many think. Rather it is an identity by belief in a creed, a set of principles laid out two hundred and fifty years ago–a belief in freedom, equality and liberty. What makes us different is what those things mean to us: freedom, equality and liberty for what and for whom? 

American Patriots is a project created by vocalist Samantha Rose Williams, with an assortment of four composers writing a share of the numbers (those being Yaniv Segal, Regina Harris Baiocchi, Danielle Jagelski, with more pieces to come from Marc Lemay). The libretto is based on a series of fifty interviews conducted by Williams on questions relating to American identity, patriotism and the oft-discussed American Dream. Her intention was to present these texts without bias, to really understand where they were coming from and to dispel our preconceptions about who other Americans are. For instance, Williams told us one of her interviews caused her to reconsider what racism was and why someone would have a different idea of what racism is.

Samantha Rose Williams, singer and creator of "American Patriots." Photo courtesy of Renegade Opera.
Samantha Rose Williams, singer and creator of “American Patriots.” Photo by Tom Lupton.

The Alberta House was an appropriate venue for the shows. The politically charged American Patriots matched well with the paintings on the walls depicting the 2020 George Floyd protests in Portland. The paintings were a more impressionistic take on the events, but seeing shadowy figures looming in front of a boarded-up courthouse downtown was a familiar enough sight for me to understand them immediately. 

Three vocalists took turns portraying at least a dozen characters and perspectives: Annie Sherman, Robert Wesley Mason, and Williams herself. Some of the best moments of the show saw the three singing in harmony together, such as the tune “Sovereignty” which addressed life on Native American reservations. All three did a great job embodying a diverse collection of characters from various ethnic, social and economic backgrounds.

L to R: Robert Wesley Mason, Samantha Rose Williams, Annie Sherman, and conductor Yaniv Segal rehearsing Renegade Opera's production of "American Patriots." Photo courtesy of Renegade Opera.
L to R: Robert Wesley Mason, Samantha Rose Williams, Annie Sherman, and conductor Yaniv Segal rehearsing Renegade Opera’s production of “American Patriots.” Photo by Tom Lupton.

The diverse instrumentation of a jazz octet (two winds, trumpet, violin, guitar, bass, percussion and piano) gave the composers a wide tonal palette to work from, with many songs sounding like some of the more ornate compositions of Charles Mingus or Esperanza Spalding. With this instrumentation the music spanned all sorts of styles, from the heavy-swinging C minor blues of “Aging out” to the open 4ths and tubular bells of “Flag.” 

The penultimate scene of the show was the weakest. It dropped the concept of transcribed interview texts in favor of a staged conversation between three of the characters introduced at the beginning, with a wholly new text written by director Bill Barclay. It felt a little bit too after-school-special for me, with words about coming together and reconciling our differences to build a better society for the future. After the preceding hour highlighting such disparate perspectives that seem almost irreconcilable, this final message rang hollow to me. It brought the show out of the grounded realism of the interviewee’s words and into a speculative melodrama that did not work for me. Maybe if the interview texts were rearranged and juxtaposed in an interesting way it would’ve worked better. But as part of a workshop-performance, the scene was worth a try. The song that came after, “learn something,” ended the show on a much better note, with the interviewee reminiscing on grandmotherly words of wisdom to keep an open mind every day. 

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Seattle Opera Barber of Seville

She Loves You Back

She Loves You Back seemed to share little thematic overlap with Patriots, outside of RO’s modus operandi of politically- and socially-conscious performances. Jesse Preis, pianist and music director for She Loves You Back, said in the talk-back that the concept connects ecological themes with femininity, and relationships more broadly–whether they be relationships between humans, humans and animals, or humans and our planet. This makes clear that the “she” in the title is not some idealized romantic interest, the she of an unrequited love, but rather the great She, Mother Earth, Gaia. Perhaps we have taken her love for granted. 

Ashi Day’s For Whom the Dog Tolls opened the show in a wild, humorous manner. Vocalist Emily Evelyn Way was really having fun with the choreography, running around barefoot with evocative facial expressions and hand puppetry. The piece places the vocalist into the emotions and behaviors of a dog (a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever in particular): their extremities of joy and sadness, with wide eyes and raised ears, turning into confusion at humanity’s more esoteric forms of communication. But despite this joy, the dog remains subservient to its human companion, begging for attention and admiration.

Emily Evelyn Way in Renegade Opera's production "She Loves You Back." Photo courtesy of Renegade Opera.
Emily Evelyn Way in Renegade Opera’s production “She Loves You Back.” Photo by Tom Lupton.

The next song, “The Letter” by Shruthi Rajasekar, sets together three texts by Lord Byron, George Etherege, and Carl Sandburg. “The Letter” was a moment where the staging by stage director Joellen Sweeney really shined. The reading of the eponymous letter, the movements of Way and fellow vocalist Claire Robertson-Preis, the loud solid-colored costumes and the minimal lighting brought the piece into a deeper state as the woman pushes back against the overwrought poetry of the male love interest. 

There were also video projections behind most of the pieces on the program. The videos accompanying the performances at first seemed to be more for mood and color, as a wintery German countryside seems apt for Schumann. Part of the reasoning behind including parts of Robert Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben was to reinterpret the cycle as an address to Mother Earth instead of towards a human male lover, according to Preis. The video pushed this point forward, as color-altered clouds of pink and green faded into footage of a forest fire. German Romanticism is thus reimagined for the twenty-first century. 

Claire Robertson-Preis in Renegade Opera's production "She Loves You Back." Photo courtesy of Renegade Opera.
Claire Robertson-Preis in Renegade Opera’s production “She Loves You Back.” Photo by Tom Lupton.

One high moment in She Loves You Back was a premiere-of-sorts of Lisa Neher’s song cycle No One Saves the Earth From Us But Us. I say of sorts because we only heard about half of the songs in the cycle: the full cycle will be premiered on Earth Day 2024 in Cincinnati. The visuals to accompany this cycle were more abstract and parabolic, with Way standing imposingly behind the white sheet upon which the visuals were projected for parts of the performance. 

Neher’s compositional style gives heft to the words of Craig Santos Perez and Felicia Zamora, as individual lines say much with little: “it was summer all winter.” Even the more verbose lines like “a litany of statistics” become part of a complex pointing towards the wicked problems we face. One moment stood out that saw Way singing wordless syllables into the piano to allow the resonance to flourish. It’s a cool effect, but one that was a bit hard to hear outside of the loudest notes. It probably sounds much better when the piano is miked up and amplified–or in a recording.

The last words of the show, the final lines of Neher’s Sonnet at the Edge of the Reef, asks a difficult question: “And isn’t our silence, too, a kind of shelter?” And to follow up that difficult question, will that shelter save us from the coming storm? Would speaking up do more? Whatever the answers are, both of Renegade Opera’s productions in the Artists in Conversation left us with much to ponder. What I have to wonder is if and when we will get tired of asking questions and start to implement answers.

Sponsor

Portland Opera Puccini

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Charles Rose is a composer, writer and sound engineer born and raised in Portland, Oregon. In 2023 he received a masters degree in music from Portland State University. During his tenure there he served as the school's theory and musicology graduate teaching assistant and the lead editor of the student-run journal Subito. His piano trio Contradanza was the 2018 winner of the Chamber Music Northwest’s Young Composers Competition. He also releases music on BandCamp under various aliases. You can find his writing at Continuousvariations.com.

 

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