justin ralls

Meaning and quality on a shoestring

Opera Theater Oregon's tribute to Guthrie and Hill features expressive performances and timely message

We all know a bit about Woody Guthrie, the 20th-century American social-justice troubadour. Apostles and adopters like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash embraced and copied his music ad infinitum. During these 21st-century trying times, when social justice is taking a far back seat to greed and power-grabbing, why not celebrate Guthrie again?

Opera Theater Oregon’s This Land Sings: Songs of Wandering, Love and Protest took up the cause with an engaging production built on Michael Daugherty’s radio-show-style chamber opera Aug. 24 at Alberta Rose Theater. The house wasn’t sold out, but close enough. Scenery was spare, other than big-screen slides of the Dust Bowl and other Depression horrors, and costumes were non-existent—though conductor/OTO co-creative director/composer Justin Ralls wore suspenders. The outfits leaned toward muted country-folksy with a touch of  frontier vibe rather than showy or elaborate.

Opera Theater Oregon's 'This Land Sings.' Left to right: Daniel Mobbs, Lisa Neher, suspendered Justin Ralls, announcer Thom Hartmann. Photo by Michael Daugherty.
Opera Theater Oregon’s ‘This Land Sings.’ Left to right: singers Daniel Mobbs and Lisa Neher, suspendered conductor Justin Ralls, announcer Thom Hartmann. Photo by Michael Daugherty.

But the music? The singing? The conducting? The ensemble-playing? They were terrific and made up for any deficits in visual design. With this piece, OTO continues to fulfill its mission of presenting contemporary English-language works that shine a bright and piercing light on social, political and environmental issues. If you saw OTO’s 2017 Two Yosemites, composed by Ralls, then you know the group set a high bar for its mission and continues to pursue it with utter sincerity. (Read Arts Watch’s interview with Ralls here).

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MusicWatch Weekly: This music kills fascists and opera

Folksy chamber operas, locavore choral music, doom and psych and loops, pairs of pairs of pairs

Well folks, basically everything is happening this weekend. You want modern chamber operas based on Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill? Justin Ralls and Opera Theater Oregon have got your back. You want doom metal and/or psychedelic stoner rock? Hippie Death Cult and Queen Chief will melt your mind. Or maybe live Spaghetti Western music is your cup o’ joe: check out local supergroup Federale. Electronics abound at 2019 NW Loopfest, but if you want to go the other direction, check out Portland’s newest local-composer-friendly singing group, Foris Choir. You could even pack a sandwich and a thermos of green tea and get your voice down to Bach Cantata Choir’s madrigal sing-along.

I know you’re all chomping at the bit for your next music theory lesson, but all this lovely stuff is happening tonight and this weekend–so let’s dive right into what I’m missing right now.

Opera must die

Olivia Giovetti recently made a compelling case for why opera must die, and although I agree with her conclusion I must quibble with her timeline–opera is already long dead. Moreover, while its sloppily shellacked corpse has been slowly decomposing for the last few decades, wonderful new forms of opera have been springing up everywhere. Have a listen to some of my recent favorites: Laura Kaminsky’s As One, Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves, David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion, Kevin Puts’s Silent Night (could throw Du Yun’s Pulitzer-winning Angel’s Bone, but honestly I’m not crazy about that one; can’t win em all, which is sort of the point). Patient Zero in this rebirth of the opera is probably Philip Glass, whose brilliant 1979 opera Satyagraha is quite possibly his greatest work and almost surely the likeliest to live beyond him.

These modern operas all still have compelling narratives and the harmonic sensibilities to support them; beautiful, singable, memorable melodies; well-drawn characters; and a sense of the mythopoeic that connects the mundane lives of individual characters to the grand archetypes which illuminate the human psyche.

In other words, opera is alive and well. The trouble is that opera companies (as Giovetti points out) program way too much of the safe conservative stuff and way too little of the new stuff. I’m not saying stop doing Mozart and Puccini–Mozart and Puccini are awesome. But what if we just flip the ratio of new to old? Instead of a season of Vivaldi and Leoncavallo with one or two token new operas, what if it was a whole season of new stuff with a token Wagner or Rossini? Portland Opera is gradually catching up–they’ve recently performed Lang, Kaminsky, and Glass, and their upcoming season features Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers and An American Quartet of short operas by Menotti, Barber, Douglas Moore, and Lee Hoiby.

But, for now at least, nobody in town is doing as much to promote new opera as Opera Theater Oregon under the co-directorship of composer Justin Ralls and singer Nicholas Meyer. A couple summers back, it was Ralls’s lovely, mythic Two Yosemites; last year it was Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince. When I interviewed Ralls for Arts Watch last summer, he said two things that rang a big pair of Balinese gongs in my brain:

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‘The Little Prince’: flight of imagination

Artistic director Justin Ralls, who conducts this weekend’s Opera Theater Oregon’s production, sees Saint-Exupery’s story as “a metaphor for that revitalizing world of imagination and creativity”

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

This weekend at downtown Portland’s lovely Dolores Winningstad Theatre, Opera Theater Oregon premieres its new production of The Little Prince. That’s the whole run, so if you’re going you’d better get a move on. The opera—with libretto by British playwright Nicholas Wright and music by British composer Rachel Portman (best known for her award-winning film scores and the music Jim Henson’s The Storyteller series)—is sung in English and based on the popular novel by French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

This is the second season with OTO for artistic co-directors Justin Ralls and Nicholas Meyer, the composer-singer team who brought us Ralls’s Two Yosemites for their inaugural season with the independent opera company last year. Joining them in this year’s production are some of the area’s finest singers. Superstar mezzo-soprano Hannah Penn plays The Fox (a raisonneur sort of character who gets most of the best lines); composer, Resonance Ensemble bass-baritone, and ArtsWatch contributor Damien Geter sings The King (and one of the baobab trees). In the starring roles, we’ve got baritone and Aquilon Music Festival founder and festival coordinator Anton Belov as The Pilot, and tiny soprano Catherine Olson as the titular prince. It’s worth going to just for the vocal cast.

Belov and Olson in OTO’s ‘The Little Prince.’ Photo: Theodore Sweeney

Portman’s score is, well, Portmany—melodic, bright and a little moody, heavily indebted to normal classical music—and I look forward to hearing how Ralls handles another composer’s music, having only heard him conduct his own. He is a fine composer in his own right, student of UO-based composer Robert Kyr and one of many younger voices who are finally beginning to bloom (Nokuthula Ngwenyama and Andy Akiho also come to mind). OTO will premiere his new opera, Song of the Most Beautiful Bird of the Forest, next season.

Ralls is also a passionate advocate for creativity as a form of resistance, as evidenced in his brilliant and prescient 2015 essay “The Power of Creation in an Age of Destruction,” an impassioned and well-reasoned manifesto that you should take a moment to read—after you’ve finished the following interview, that is. Ralls’s answers have been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.

The Little Prince, Verdi style

In redefining the mission of Opera Theater Oregon we [artistic directors Ralls and Meyer and executive director Lisa Lipton] wanted to focus on contemporary works, work that is in English specifically to reach our audience, works from diverse composers, and works that aren’t necessarily represented.

The Little Prince was on our radar, and we all reviewed it and thought it would be a great fit for us in our second production. Two Yosemites was a big work, and pretty heavy in its content and its musical language. We wanted to not repeat that, but have something that opens it up to an even larger audience and attract people that had never been to an opera before, and younger audiences.

Catherine Olson plays the title role in Opera Theater Oregon’s ‘The Little Prince.’ Photo: Theodore Sweeney

The Little Prince was ideal for us because of the accessibility of the music and the variety of roles. There’s ten-plus characters, but those characters don’t sing an entire opera—they have cameo appearances. So we’re able to feature a lot of different singers with a very practical economy of means. We’ve been talking about it as “The Little Prince, Verdi style.”

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