Robert Orth

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 very model of a modern major musical

Preview: Ashland director Bill Rauch takes Portland Opera's 'Pirates of Penzance' for a Victorian spin with modern 'grace notes'

At the moment, Frederic doesn’t much look like a pirate. For one thing, he sports a handsome gray top hat; but, after all, this is his wedding. Rather it’s the striped sweatshirt, jeans and Converse that say “modern everyday guy,” not “high-seas scalawag.”

But the fellow’s sartorial anachronisms make sense. He’s not upon Atlantic waves but in a large, black-and-maroon-walled rehearsal room at Portland Opera. It’s an afternoon rehearsal in late April, so he’s partly Frederic, the idealistic 19th-century romantic lead of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, yet mostly Ryan MacPherson, a 21st-century performer preparing for Friday night’s opening at the Keller Auditorium. Meanwhile: as she at once embodies and examines Mabel, Frederic’s love interest, Talise Trevigne twirls about in an old-fashioned, cream-colored silk skirt — with the neon spatter of multi-colored running shoes peeking from underneath.

I get a kick out of you. A G&S pirate chorus line. Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

I get a kick out of you: a G&S pirate chorus line. Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

Along with several other members of the cast and creative team, they’re working on the show’s celebratory closing scene, calibrating choreography, gesture and timing.

“I’d like to put this all together before we move on,” director Bill Rauch says, after an hour or so of worrying over diverse details in small groups. “Can we do it with music and at tempo?”