I once chased a Great Horned Owl through the forest for an hour and didn’t even know I was chasing it. I didn’t know I was chasing anything, really, I just had a sense—an undefinable yet undeniable gut feeling—that something was out there waiting for me. The air smelled of loam and earth as a muddy trail led me up the steep slope, licorice ferns brushing my legs while I stared at the ranks of Douglas Firs towering over me, green giants from a forgotten time of yore. Pacific Wrens sang incessantly in their intricate burble, and Golden-crowned Kinglets hopped across the path in front of and behind me—only an arm’s length away yet as ephemeral as woodland sprites, their tiny yellow crests flashing like the new rising sun. When I finally saw the owl, I was transfixed: it was a young bird, fluffy and downy, its face framed by a mask of feathers the color of cappuccino froth. But its eyes were as wise as a grandmother’s and ancient as the moon, and I was deliciously haunted when I stepped from tree-shadow and back into the sun.
Those kinds of experiences are what entrance birders, changing their lives forever when they begin to tune into the natural world around them in ways they perhaps never anticipated. Although I am a great lover of the art form, I personally never expected to have a similar experience at the opera–until Saturday’s performance of a concert entitled Bird Songs of Opera presented by Portland’s Renegade Opera.
It was clear from the get-go that a real birder was at the helm of this production. Artistic director Joellen Sweeney describes it as a “trail performance,” and that is an accurate description for what proved to be a curiously new and delightful way to experience this music. Put simply, the performance consisted of six of the best-known arias in the repertoire, each one sung by a performer imagined as a different type of bird positioned at a waystation along the path at Leach Botanical Garden in outer southeast Portland.
Two minders–one at the head and one trailing the group, each holding up a sunflower stalk–kept the group together. But it was not the minders that led the group onward. Appropriately reminiscent of a puckish Papageno (although now as bird watcher instead of bird catcher), the Birder (Maeve Stier) was the link between audience and performers, a sort of living fourth wall who gave the whole performance a curious ‘meta’ feel—more than a little self-aware. The Birder began singing the tune of the “Humming Chorus” from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly while weaving down the path, and so it was their song that led us deeper into the woods.
The first stop led up an elevated walkway under the dense greenery, where those of us toward the back of the procession were first alerted to the presence of the Northern Flicker by the rattle of a stick pinging off the metal slats of the railing, in near perfect imitation of one of these woodpeckers drumming on a lamp post or aluminum chimney (as they oft do to achieve maximum volume). Madeline Ross, in a sumptuous costume (as all were), made swift and excellent work of “Der Hölle Rache” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. The rapid, repetitive high-C’s (which were all perfect, as was the infamous F above it) could be heard as an imitation of the high-pitched cackle of this bird, adding a clever, retroactively applied programmatic element to the performance. Stier’s accordion accompaniment (the only accompaniment for the entire performance) was extremely difficult, and while the instrument lent itself more readily to some arias than others, Stier’s handling of it was impressive throughout.
Stop two, on a grassy sward lower down on the margins of the woods, allowed us a glimpse of the frenetic Black-capped Chickadee (Erica Jaturaporn). Jaturaporn bobbed their head rapidly and made quick, flighty dashes across the grass while singing a pointed yet lyrical interpretation of Donizettis’ “Chacun le sait” from La fille du Régiment. A short way up the path, Abigail Krawson as the Mourning Dove sang more Magic Flute, wringing every bit of sentiment from “Ach ich fühl’s.” Due to the nature of the trail, I was only able to glimpse her, imperfectly and through dense foliage, but this, too, added an element of verisimilitude for one seeking to experience this as a birder might during an outing in the woods.
On the patio of the East Terrace still further down, the Birder flabbergasted Joannah Ball–the Anna’s Hummingbird–by misidentifying her as a Rufous Hummingbird (an inside joke to all birdwatchers in the audience who have ever mis-ID’d a bird, which is to say every one of us.) But our little hummingbird was satisfied upon the Birder stopping short and giving the correct ID, and she then treated the audience to a gay and spritely “Mein Herr Marquis” from Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus.
The final two stops, as we left the realm of the Man-made and once again proceeded into Nature, consisted of two of opera’s biggest showstoppers: the “Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen and Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot. Mahsheed Massarat’s rich, full mezzo and entrancing come-hither as a Steller’s Jay sounded wonderful, but due to a quirk of the trail I was unable to see most of the performance. However, from what I did see her movements reminded me of the unruffled flight of these jays when they move branch to branch, often looking more like levitation than flying.
Nick Toto was imposing and just a little unnerving with direct, unflinching stares directed at the audience, leaving me feeling the way that being stared at by a Great Horned Owl always does: with no doubt as to who the inferior one is in that equation. “Nessun Dorma” (“No one sleeps”) was well-chosen for the owl, and if the aria occasionally strained a bit against Toto’s tessitura, their delivery was appropriately grandiose and unflinching, and the difficult ultimate note left nothing wanting.
Indeed all of the vocal talent was impressive. It took some top-notch singing to project adequately outdoors and yet still retain the technical mastery, artistry, and precise diction required of a singer performing these demanding arias, yet every performer was up to the task. In order to pull off Stier’s rapid switching between roles as taciturn narrator, able accompanist, singer and birding guide, one needed a multi-faceted performer of real talent, and in every role they were superb. The costumes by Kelli McDonough went beyond being merely insightful (which they were): they showed her to be a designer of true imagination, someone upon whom the staggering beauty of avifauna was not lost, such that the costumes themselves almost stole the show.
This kind of reinventing of what opera can mean—whether one is a performer or audience member—is exciting for someone like me (and I know I’m not the only one) who loves the medium and the music dearly, but who grows weary of the rote staging of patriarchal drivel that underpins so much of the standard repertoire.
The grand finale on the terrace gave a final nod to bird enthusiasts. As the songbirds slowly approached the Birder, each sang their own aria simultaneously, yielding a delightful cacophony just as many birds singing at once will do. The Birder had the audience join for the Humming Chorus, which then morphed into a scintillating choral rendition of the “Flower Duet” from Delibes’ Lakmé. As the concert drew to a close the Birder was enraptured, sure that the entire performance was all for them–and that is a feeling well-known to all who love birdsong.