‘Contralto’ and ‘Queer Opera Experience’: queer is a verb

Third Angle New Music and Portland State University productions transcend rigid gender boundaries

Queer, like pride, is a verb. As a verb, it can have two opposing meanings: to problematize, and to normalize. In a single September weekend, Portlanders heard both, in very different approaches to queering art music.

Third Angle’s September 14 season opener Contralto, created by percussionist and experimental composer Sarah Hennies, derived strength and meaning from an Artaudesque confrontation with the challenges faced by transitioning women learning to retrain their voices. Part of this year’s TBA Festival, the hour-long film-and-music piece normalized the voice of the outsider, to be seen and understood, reminding us that people whose gender identities and sexual orientations lie outside traditional boundaries are still normal people, human beings with beautiful aspirations no different from those accustomed to passing in straight society.

Third Angle New Music presented ‘Contralto’ at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s TBA:18 Festival. Photo: Kimme Fadem.

The next night, two concerts of traditional classical vocal music performed by students in Portland State University’s Queer Opera Experience aimed for the opposite type of queering: by flipping the genders of famous opera characters, and leaving everything else the same, these singers demonstrated their right to a seat at the operatic table, loving whom they will, insisting on freedom of representation and authentic self-expression within the context of a conservative musical tradition.


Seven women face the camera and deliver snippets of the speech therapy texts, beginning with body meditation affirmations—“your body is soft, your body is smooth”—reminiscent of hypnotic self-awareness techniques. The women move on to isolated syllables, gradually building up to words and phrases, “her voice is so soothing,” “when is your next appointment?” It’s a diverse assortment of women, young and old, and when they start singing musical notes their voices come together in moments of shyly emerging beauty. Composer and filmmaker Hennies earlier explained that “all of the text of this piece was constructed by speech therapists who assist trans women during their transitions.”

‘Contralto’ creator Sarah Hennies with Third Angle artistic director Sarah Tiedemann. Photo: Kimme Fadem.

Throughout, three percussionists crumple papers, drop keys, and create a creaking starfield of random sounds. The four string players get right into the extended bowing techniques, scratchy whispering harmonics, maximally sparse, minimally vibrant. Gliding tones never quite line up, never really go anywhere, certainly not towards any coherent harmony or melody. In one clever bit, the strings play a single note which one or the other of the prerecorded women then sing, a counterpoint of alternating tones, a composite scale emerging from the interplay of live performance and video, totally T:BA appropriate. But the music never really becomes very musical, remaining in this inchoate John Luther Adams territory for the whole very long hour. The only relief comes when the video soundtrack emits lovely sung chords, presumably constructed from samples of the women’s sung tones; the effect is a little like Imogen Heap on the vocoder.

I have to admit that this sort of experimental music wears thin fast, at least for me. Like its popular counterpart, noise rock, it seems all too easy to create a lot of sounds and call it good: no harmony, no melody, no groove, no take home pay. The infinite world of experimental music unleashed by Cage and Co. in the 1950s will probably never run its course: it’s a deep well, after all, and it most definitely scratches a musical itch. I suppose I was hoping (perhaps in part due to the show’s title, contralto being the lowest of the female singing ranges) for something along the lines of Morton Feldman’s Three Voices. That work, which Quince Ensemble performed for Third Angle last year, is certainly avant-garde and experimental in every sense, but it nevertheless features compelling melodies and harmonies.

Sarah Hennies – “Contralto” (preview) from Sarah Hennies on Vimeo.

Hennies describes her aesthetic as “concerned with an immersive, psychoacoustic presentation of sound brought about by an often grueling, endurance-based performance practice.” She’s no stranger to the music of Feldman, Alvin Lucier, et al, and she does have more harmonically driven music in her catalog (Live Fleas and Gather & Release are particularly good, although of course none of it is Mozart). All of which suggests that Contralto’s arrhythmic, aharmoic, amelodic scoring of the strings and percussion was a completely deliberate choice, an aesthetic layering meant to be experienced in counterpoint to the audio-visual presentation, a troubling sonic evocation of the difficult undercurrent running through the life-affirming experience of transition. It’s a bold move, a film composer sort of decision, a way of queering the narrative.

Queer Opera Experience

It was with great relief that I got to go hear several hours of sheer uninterrupted melody at two concerts produced by PSU’s Queer Opera Experience that weekend. Seven singers (again seven!) performed two concerts of classical repertoire—an evening of opera scenes on September 15 and an afternoon of art songs on the 16th—flipping genders and singing what they wanted, without regard to traditional voice type.

PSU collaborative piano professor Chuck Dillard, who accompanied the performers in Lincoln Hall’s little black box studio theater, came out before the show to discuss the project. “I want to start by saying that I love my mother,” he said from the stage, relating a phone call on the subject of queer opera. “She said, ‘Charles, you might be a lot of things, but you are not queer.’ And I understood what she meant, sadly. But it made me reflect on what the word means, has meant, and can mean.” He discussed the word’s history as a means of torment and ridicule, and its reclamation as a positive expression and “an umbrella term for people who don’t identify as L, G, B, or T.”

“Tonight,” Dillard concluded, “queer is a verb.”


Opera: PSU springs a Puccini surprise

Lightness, froth, and a touch of tragedy in the melodic and little-known 'La Rondine'

Tonight and tomorrow night (Friday and Saturday, May 3 and 4) are your final chances to see “La Rondine,” this year’s production of the Portland State University opera program, and if you get the chance it’s worth the trip. Getting student opera right isn’t easy (getting ANY opera right isn’t easy) but PSU’s bright production of this bittersweet froth of a romantic comedy on the skids provides plenty of theatrical eye candy, and if the musical performances don’t always match the staging, they prove once again that the school’s program provides a consistently good launching pad for young singers. The blend of professional and student talent in the annual productions is usually an eye-opener.

La Rondine“La Rondine” is one of Puccini’s lesser-known operas despite its waterfall of lush melody – he himself was dissatisfied with the story, and kept tinkering with it after its premiere in 1917, altering the ending more than once and at one point even killing off his fallen heroine, though that’s not the ending used here, and thank goodness. The play’s an odd blend of light and dark, wanting to be almost an operetta but succumbing to a streak of odd moralizing and sadly separating two lovers who obviously are meant to be together: she has a soiled past, and cannot stain her young lover’s reputation. That decision comes a little late, considering that they’ve already run off together to a life of blissful sin in the countryside. Never mind. The music overcomes the moralizing, and if the “fallen woman” motif seems more like unintended self-parody than near-tragedy, well, times have changed.

“La Rondine” continues the student company’s adventurous programming, which in recent years has also included the likes of Kurt Weill’s “Street Scene” and Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” I imagine those choices have something to do with what roles are appropriate for developing voices. They might also reflect the tastes of program director Christine Meadows, who was a regular for several seasons during the heyday of New York City Opera, a company that revels in theatricality and accessibility to broader audiences. Having people like Meadows, Metropolitan Opera (and Portland Opera) regular Richard Zeller, Angela Niederloh and Pamela South available as vocal teachers testifies to the program’s high standards.

This production’s standout is unquestionably rising-star tenor Zach Borichevsky, a visiting teacher and guest artist this year, as Ruggero, the young man from the country who comes to Paris and falls under the spell of the enchanting sparrow, Magda de Civry. She holds court in the home of her jaded lover, Rambaldo, who on Tuesday night got a deft and dryly funny performance from master’s student Max Moreno. Once Magda and Ruggero eye each other … well, you can guess. Borichevsky, who’s improbably tall, has an engaging command of the stage and sings with warmth, power, and admirable precision. As Magda, recent PSU alum Anna Viemeister has a strong and warm voice but hasn’t yet developed the precise control that the role calls for. The makings are there, though, and that’s the point of the program. Among the supporting cast, Hannah Consenz is a bright-voiced comic knockout as Magda’s feisty maid Lisette.

Stage director Jon Kretzu, for many years a mainstay at Artists Repertory Theatre until leaving recently to jump full-time into the freelance pool, brings a bright comic edge to the acting, resetting the action smoothly into the 1950s with a lush Douglas Sirk approach. And the designs, which fill the cozy Lincoln Performance Hall stage without overstuffing it, are first-rate: lighting by veteran Peter West, chic costumes by Jessica Bobillot, and a set by Carey Wong that cleverly adapts a large spiraling staircase to a different location for each of the three acts. I’ve always liked the way Wong, a resident designer for Portland Opera many years ago before setting out on an international career, approaches his projects: his sets invariably have a vivid, almost hyperrealistic clarity that revels in the artificiality of the theater and is also stage-smart, providing clear playing areas.

Not just the singers but also the orchestra members are students, and while you can tell it’s a student orchestra, it’s a good student orchestra, responding well under Ken Selden’s direction.

I was puzzled by one thing, particularly since the back section of the hall on Tuesday night was mostly empty: while reduced-price tickets were available for PSU students and faculty, there was no student rate for high school kids, who ended up paying full adult fare. The policy seems short-sighted. Younger students (I had a particularly discerning one in tow) are the future audiences and performers of the opera world, and a welcoming gesture might even be a good recruiting tool for the university. Besides, empty seats don’t help anyone. Better all of fifteen dollars than none of twenty-six.


  • Remaining performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 3-4, at Lincoln Performance Hall on the PSU campus. Ticket information is here.
  •  Angela Allen wrote a good behind-the-scenes preview for ArtsWatch. Read it here.
  • James McQuillen wrote an insightful review for The Oregonian. Read it here.


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‘Tosca’: a lithe and lively leap into the abyss

Warhorse? Maybe. But Portland Opera's latest Puccini goes for the gusto.

Mark Schnaible as Scarpia, Roger Honeywell as Cavaradossi, Kara Shay Thomson as Tosca. © Portland Opera / Cory Weaver

Mark Schnaible as Scarpia, Roger Honeywell as
Cavaradossi, Kara Shay Thomson as Tosca. © Portland Opera / Cory Weaver

Watching Friday’s opening night of “Tosca” at Portland Opera, I got to thinking about Henry James.

No, not because Benjamin Britten adapted James’s ghost story “The Turn of the Screw” as an opera (which Portland Opera produced, quite well, in 2009). I thought about James because he was the master of the allusive, thoroughly explored and sometimes almost painfully drawn-out story. A little older than Puccini, he wrote some of his most elaborate novels around the time of “Tosca,” which premiered in 1900. And “Tosca,” it struck me, is everything those expansive James novels are not: terse, tense, all in a rush. While James was busily keeping the 19th century alive and kicking, Puccini was anticipating the Age of Hemingway. Get in, tell your tale, get out. Anything else is interior decoration.

Friends, this is melodrama – and I mean that with a good deal of admiration. Like other staples of the operatic stage, “Tosca” often gets dismissed as a warhorse, which means old and sturdy and unchallenging and predictable. I prefer to think of it as a war jaguar: lean, mean, sleek as a cat. Critic Joseph Kerman famously called it a “shabby little shocker,” a phrase he might have meant as an insult but quickly became a box office boon. Like Bizet’s “Carmen,” premiered 25 years earlier, “Tosca” gets down and dirty without wasting a lot of time on introspection, and it’s got the storytelling fervor of the yellow-journalism press – plus, importantly, music that’s memorable and accessible and even hummable. Shabby. Shocking. Encore!

No matter what the critics and even other composers say (Britten declared himself “sickened by the cheapness and emptiness” of the score), “Tosca” remains exceptionally popular with people who actually buy tickets, and that popularity tempted Portland Opera into bringing back the same production it presented just a few short years ago, in 2005. It’s a good, solid production, with sets by Ercole Sormani and costumes by Michael Stennett that cloak the tale in rich historical bronzes and browns and never draw too much attention to themselves: they serve the singers and the story. I liked the production in 2005, and I like it now. This “Tosca” works much better for me than last fall’s Portland Opera recycling of another warhorse (I’m tempted, in the case of that obtrusively directed production, to call it a war elephant), “Don Giovanni.”

Whatever its technical faults may or may not be, “Tosca” is terrific theater, and it’s good to remember that. Critics and fellow composers despaired of Mussorgsky’s technique, too, which didn’t keep him from creating memorable music. And while Puccini was a great composer, he was also very much a man of the theater, which honors the pragmatic art of making things work. The critic Ernest Newman (I gather this and Britten’s verbal slap from Wikipedia’s good essay on “Tosca”) allowed that Puccini’s operas “are to some extent a mere bundle of tricks, but no one else has performed the tricks nearly as well.” In other words: They work.

“Tosca” has a heroine, a hero, and a villain, and everything else exists to set them toward their inevitable clash. The hero, Cavarodossi (Roger Honeywell), is a painter who helps Angelotti, an escaped political prisoner (Nicholas Nelson). Cavaradossi loves the famous singer Floria Tosca (Kara Shay Thomson), who is devoted to him and overcomes a fit of misplaced jealousy urged on by the villainous Scarpia (Mark Schnaible), the Roman police chief, who’s a sort of corrupt Javert: he’s determined to get his man, but while he’s at it he’s going to get his woman, too. That’s really all you need to know. Oh – and everybody dies, quite satisfyingly. In that sense, the thing’s positively Shakespearean.

I can’t say there’s a huge amount of sexual magnetism drawing Honeywell and Thomson together, but that’s OK: Thomson sings Tosca beautifully, with a honeyed and full-bodied tone, and when the drama gets deep she’s hellzapoppin. Don’t cross Tosca. She’s tough. Honeywell, who was the caddish Pinkerton in last year’s lovely “Madame Butterfly,” has a lighter tenor that can sometimes get muted by the troublesome acoustics of Keller Auditorium, but his acting’s good and his voice rings out fine and clearly in the clutches. Bass-baritone Schnaible, making his Portland Opera debut, is a suitably scurvy Scarpia without pushing him into cartoon territory, and Metropolitan Opera vet Thomas Hammons, another bass-baritone, makes the most of the comic and musical possibilities in his brief role as the fussy church Sacristan. David Kneuss, the executive stage director of the Met who’s making his Portland Opera debut, keeps the action flowing swiftly and cleanly, and the orchestra, under director Joseph Colaneri, is in particularly fine fettle, playing clean and swift and reveling in the big bold dramatic moments. In brief: it’s a good, well-turned “Tosca,” with many more pluses than minuses, and if I had the time I wouldn’t mind seeing it again.

A final note: Tosca, of course, leaps to her death from a parapet as the opera ends, a dramatic moment – you could call it a shabby little shocker – that’s always a challenge for opera companies. (As is Don Giovanni’s fiery descent into the maws of Hell, which was accomplished in last fall’s PO production by a ludicrous hop and leap into an open casket.) Thomson takes her tumble with a fine dive, as graceful and defiant as a dying swan. It’s a lovely dramatic moment (and for “Tosca” veterans, a moment of deep relief), worthy of a “Brava!” or three all by itself.


  • Portland Opera’s “Tosca” repeats February 3, 7, and 9 at Keller Auditorium. Ticket information is here.
  • James McQuillen’s review for The Oregonian is here.