Tuesday, January 1, 2019

My Review of my Opera and Theater experiences for 2018


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As 2018 draws to an end here is my run-down of my top opera, musical and theater experiences of 2018. I will begin with opera. The order is not necessarily relevant in every case except the few at the top. Also, please forgive my overuse of superlatives. This is after all a list of my favorites.

1. “Regina” by Marc Blitzstein – Opera Theater St. Louis with Susan Graham, James Morris, Rob Raines and Susannah Philips. This mid-20th century opera is based on the play “The Little Foxes” by Lillian Hellman (not the movie). I had the opportunity to see both the movie and the play this year also and it was fun to compare. I had seen the opera once before in Chicago but it made no impression. But this production and performance was incredible – one of the finest performances of any opera I have ever seen. The cast was outstanding! In fact, one cannot imagine a better cast. Susan Graham was amazing as Regina, and James Morris brought an appropriate affability to the scheming Ben and his closing “arietta” Greedy Girl was a highlight. Rob Raines as Oscar was terrifically horrible especially to the Birdie of Susannah Philips whose extended monologue near the beginning of act 2 was one of the most touching moments of the performance. Most of the rest of the cast were young artists and were also outstanding – Leo and Zan in particular. The opportunity to experience this opera with this cast and then also see the movie and play was the top overall theater/opera experience of 2018 for me.


2. In 2nd place is the Met’s new production of “Cosi fan Tutte,” - the “Coney Island” production. It is not surprising that this production has been criticized but I have found that most of the criticisms seem to be based only on the complainer’s pre-conceived notions of this great opera that in my view conveys a complete lack of understanding of the opera and it’s much maligned libretto. I have posted multiple essays on this opera and for me Cosi is not only Mozart/Da Ponte’s shining jewel in a crown of jewels, but it is Da Ponte’s own statement on issues of sexual politics, especially as practiced in the Enlightenment period of the late 18th century. If you do not understand this you will not understand Cosi. The opera stands over and against the patriarchal misogyny of its time bringing women down from their pedestals and up from the gutter – Cosi fan Tutte They (women) are all like this - that is - they are human beings just like men. Sadly the issues raised by the opera are still current in our own horribly misogynistic times. This production not only presents the opera in a way that expresses the basic foundational themes of the opera in a very comprehensible manner, but it actually takes the original setting into account (something that is rarely done in “traditional” productions of this opera). The opera is originally set in the resort of Naples – what happens in Naples stays in Naples. It is a place not unlike the internet now and places like Coney Island in the 50’s. A place where there is anonymity and the opportunity to explore without societal constriction. Not only that but this production also takes the parody element seriously and presents it brilliantly (The chorus repeating their movements as the boys prepare to disembark and especially the staging of “Come scoglio” which was nothing short of brilliant IMHO and very funny). It was Da Ponte’s stated desire that Cosi always be set in the time and location of the audience, and the choice of Coney Island enables this to be done and also for the production to work with the issues created by the fact that it assumes an 18th century worldview. I absolutely loved this production – it is my favorite of all the myriad productions I have ever seen of this opera. In short, this is because it takes the libretto so incredibly seriously. And in my view the cast was also terrific. This was a perfect cast, especially Kelly O’Hara who gave us one of the most nuanced and profound performances of Despina I have ever experienced. I also loved Amanda Majeski as Fiordiligi, her “Per pietá” was gorgeous and the staging on the Ferris Wheel was deeply moving for me.  Lastly, I’ll mention the Coney Island performers who added amazingly to this production. Their constant presence gave us an ongoing sense that we were in a unique and special place (like Naples) and consequently the events could unfold in their beautiful, tragic and unique way.



3. An American Soldier by Huang Ruo with a libretto by Henry David Hwang, performed by Opera Theater St. Louis. This new opera tells a brutal story of racism within the ranks of the US Army – the story of Danny Chen. I was deeply moved by this work. It was musically outstanding and the libretto was incredible albeit very difficult to watch, but essential, especially in our day when despicable racially based hate seems to be so in vogue. This incredible opera presents racism in all its ugliness.


4. Fanciulla del West at the Met with Jonas Kaufmann, Eva Marie Westbroek and Zelko Lucic. Great production! Wonderfully sung! Terrific chorus and supporting cast. The act 2 card game was incredibly intense and well done. I loved this performance.


5a & 5b – Santa Fe Opera – Our first trip to Santa Fe and I loved it. What a wonderful venue and we enjoyed the location very much. We saw three operas – Candide, Dr. Atomic and Ariadne auf Naxos. I found Candide an odd piece though the production was colorful and inventive. But I particularly enjoyed the Ariadne auf Naxos (with Amanda Majeski again) and the Dr. Atomic, which I consider to be a masterpiece. An added attraction was the opportunity to meet the librettist/stage director Peter Sellars. He was animated and it was fun to listen to him speak.


6. Any opportunity to experience Wagner would have to be on this list. So in their build up to the complete Ring next year Lyric Opera Chicago performed “Siegfried” this season.  Musically it was very strong – Eric Owens as the Wanderer and Christine Goerke as Brunnhilde were the standouts in a really outstanding cast. I found the production a bit odd though. I thought the director’s Walküre worked better, his Siegfried just didn’t seem to me to really hang together well. But on the whole it was good and I am looking forward to the complete Ring next season.


In St. Louis we have 4 (count them) 4 opera companies and they are all good. My next two positions are taken by performances given by two of the other St. Louis companies – Union Ave Opera and Winter Opera.
7. Union Ave Opera picks up where OTSL leaves off in July and performs three operas between the beginning of July and the end of August. This last summer their final work was a not often performed work of Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars” which deals with apartheid and racism in South Africa. It was a riveting work incredibly well performed by a large cast. In this work, the majority of the cast are black with a few white roles and the chorus is also mostly black. UOA had to recruit black artists from the community and hats off they found the best of the best. The cast was outstanding. In fact, the actress who played Addie in OTSL’s “Regina” was on stage for UOA’s “Lost in the Stars” and was equally outstanding. The plot is complex so I won’t attempt to review it. But if you ever have a chance to see this opera, do not miss it!


8. Winter Opera presented “L’Elisir D’Amore” by Donizetti.  Ho hum, right? This charming opera is a bit overdone, but leave it to Winter Opera to come up with the interesting approach of setting the opera in St. Louis in one of the old storied neighborhoods, and their genius scenic designer to recreate the exact street setting complete with local landmarks and a well known church. The opera was engaging and really, really fun. And the young cast (led by the founder and company director Gina Galati) and chorus obviously loved this production because they were terrific and so energized! It is one of the most fun productions of this opera I have ever seen.

9. In the middle of the summer I found myself in NYC after helping my daughter move and took the opportunity to attend the Bard College opera festival. They have for a number of years produced a festival which included a usually rather obscure opera performance. This year the opera was “Demon” by Anton Rubinstein. A rather creepy plot line accompanied with a soaring and beautiful late 19th century score. I enjoyed it quite a lot. Demon was worth seeing, but I don’t expect it to become anyone’s favorite. Still it was a colorful production and beautifully sung; and all accompanied by a major downpour – all in upstate New York.


           
10. Lastly I will include the Washington National Opera production of Don Carlo which featured Russell Thomas (Carlo), Quinn Kelsey (Posa), Eric Owens (as King Philip), Leah Crochetto (Elizabetta), Jamie Barton (Eboli) and Andrea Silvestrelli (Grand Inquisitor). The score of Don Carlo is gorgeous and this is one of my all time favorite operas. I found the production concept a bit odd and not terribly colorful but it didn’t distract me from the glorious score and the beautiful singing. I have to say, however, that anytime I see Don Carlo without the Fontainbleu scene I feel as though something is missing. The opening scene sets up what follows both musically and dramatically, in fact one major motif is first presented in the opening scene and without it there is no reference for that musical theme.

Met HD – 2018
This is awkward since the season runs from September through May, so to do an HD favorites now necessarily requires mixing two seasons. But be it as it may, this isn’t hard and my top two are the same as my good friend Nigel’s:
1.    Cosi fan Tutte – March (see above)
2.    Fanciulla del West – October (see above)
3.    Luisa Miller – April
4.    Marnie – November (A terrific opera – stunning production)
5.    Cendrillon (Massenet) – April

Theater and Musicals
I will list these without much commentary
1.    “The Band’s Visit” – New York. This is the best new musical I have seen in a long time. The music is beautiful and the story is very powerful, especially in this day of exclusion and hate.

2.    “Mean Girls” – New York. The new musical by Tina Fey and her husband. I loved this show. I felt that it took on some really serious issues and dealt with them very well. Plus the cast was terrific. Some of the reviews have not liked all the music, but I liked it fine and for me “Apex Predator” is the best musical song of 2018.
3.    Shakespeare “King John” at the Folger in DC. This particular play brings me within one play of having seen the entire canon of Shakespeare plays, with the exception of the lost plays like “Sir Thomas More.” But this production was outstanding. And when done this well one wonders why it is not done very often. It seemed to me that the story of a completely incompetent ruler driven by his own ineptitude, selfishness and prejudice is rather timely. Hats off to the cast, especially the young actress who played the boy prince. What a part and what a job she did. She deserves a prize. It was a virtuoso performance.

4.    “My Fair Lady” at Lincoln Center Theater. I have always loved MFL. I played Higgins in high school (in the play “Pygmalion”) and I simply adore this musical. The only thing I don’t like about the musical is the way it ended, which is completely removed from the play. BUT – this production restores Shaw’s ending for the characters. I loved the way they did that. The cast were all terrific (though I didn’t much like Freddie). The Higgins and Liza were especially wonderful. And Higgin’s mother stole the show IMHO.
5.    “Hamilton” – Not much to say. Because this is a great show! Historically accurate and detailed it tells the story of the founding of the nation through a focus on Alexander Hamilton. It is a wonderful show in every way.
6.    St. Louis Rep produced “Evita” and even though it is an older show I really enjoyed it. I especially liked the Juan Peron and the company.
7.    We have a lot of theater in St. Louis too and my favorite theater company (Clayton Community Theater) is managed by my friend Sam Hack and his wife Marilyn. Two of their plays I felt were outstanding. 7. “Brighton Beach Memoires” directed by Sam himself. I had never seen it, though I had heard of it certainly. I really enjoyed it. It is a wonderful play and very touching. And then…
8.    “Laramie Project” – another play I had heard of, but had never experienced. I was not sure what to expect. I wish the issues it deals with – hate and homophobia were things of the past, but unfortunately the hate spewed at the LGBT community is disgusting and odious and seems to be worse than ever. I have personal experience dealing with that, as a pastor, and frankly this play and the event it chronicles are among the reasons that I have run out of patience for that kind of hate. It isn’t Christian it is despicable. But what a masterful creation this play is. And it was brilliantly cast and performed.

9.    I mentioned “Little Foxes” above in relation to “Regina.” Another StL theater company produced and performed this play in a rather hole in the wall theater. It was very well done. For me, the opera and then the play are the best. The movie is fine, but I don’t really like Bette Davis and I hate the added love interest for Zan.
10.                  St Louis Shakespeare Festival in Forest Park produces one play a year and it runs almost 6 weeks from the end of May through all of June. Weather is often an issue, but they always do a great job. In 2017 they did a beautiful production of “Winter’s Tale.” And this year it was “Romeo and Juliet.” At first I thought, eh, sigh, R&J. Not my favorite play, overdone, maybe I’ll skip it this year. Boy, am I glad I didn’t. It was an updated production that was really well done. A great cast and the fights were incredibly exciting – hats off to the fight director. This is easily the best R&J I have ever seen.  Lately I have watched the opera pretty often and it was nice to be reminded of the depth of the play. There is a lot in the play that is missing from the opera. The opera is really about the love story, but despite the hype in the play the love story is a vehicle to deal with irrational hate.

Digital Online and Movie House Streaming of 2018 Opera and Theater
Well, I assembled my initial list and had a total of 28 performances. I will endeavor to cut it to 12 and leave the others listed as honorable mention. The numbering is not that significant frankly, but I have to put them in some order so here goes:
1.    The “Ariadne auf Naxos” from Aix 2018 was not enjoyed universally, but I thought it brilliant. It was directed by Katie Miller and included Eric Cutler as Bacchus and Sabine Devieilhe as Zerbinetta (who wins my award for the most incredible performance of the Queen of the Night ever in a production I didn’t really like from Brussels). Clever staging.

2.    “Otello” live streamed from Munich 2018 with Jonas Kaufmann, Anja Harteros and Gerald Finley. This was an incredible performance. I agree completely with Nigel who felt that Jonas completely inhabited the role of the Moor. I also loved the staging and thought it to be very powerful.
3.    “Lohengrin” from Bayreuth 2018 with Piotr Beczala (replacing Roberto Alagna at the last minute), Anja Harteros, Tomasz Konieczny as Telramund, Waltraud, Meier as Ortrud and Georg Zeppenfeld. The production was odd and a bit perplexing. I don’t really like insects and didn’t really get that. Nevertheless the production was visually arresting and musically brilliant. Piotr was magnificent and I have to add that for some reason I read a review that panned Konieczny that I completely disagree with. He is a brilliant bass/baritone and was a terrific Telramund.
4.    “The Coronation of Poppea” (Monteverdi) from Salzburg 2018 with Sonja Yoncheva, Kate Lindsay (as a terribly decadent and repulsive Nerone), Stefanie d’Oustrac, and James Christie & Les Arts Florrisent - Terrific!!!

5.    Macbeth” from the Royal Opera House, Covet Garden was, in my view the best Macbeth of the year, though the Venice Teatro la Fenice production was a close 2nd. I loved the detail and thought the cast excellent - Netrebko, Lucic and D’Archangelo. I should mention that just around the same time I saw this I also saw the play on NTLive from the RSC and it was really excellent. In particular they cast three little girls as the weird sisters and let me tell you, despite their Pink outfits (“Mean Girls” comes to mind here – On Wednesdays we wear pink!) they were really creepy!
6.    I never thought I would ever include “L’Italiani in Algeri” as a favorite on any list. In general I have never really warmed to the opera, or the plot. But the production from Salzburg 2018 starring Ildar Adbrazakov, Cecelia Bartoli and Alessandro Corbelli was both terrific and hilarious. If you have a chance to see it. Don’t miss it!

7.    I had never seen Die Tote Stadt by Krenek before, though I had listened to it. Not the same experience at all. The Robert Carsen production at the Berliner Komische was a magnificent introduction to this opera. It is both beautiful and deeply disturbing.
8.    Staying with Berlin, this time Unter den Linden and their production of Rameau’s “Hippolyte et Aricie” is one of the most thrilling baroque opera experiences of the year for me. Beautiful cast and wonderful production.
9.    This year the opening of La Scala in Milan featured a new production of “Attila.” I loved this! The production and performance is terrific. Ildar in the title role with Georg Petean in the cast as his foil. Wonderful performance.

10.                  One of the nice things about the free opera streaming service Opera Vision is that they intersperse popular operas from name companies with unknown works from companies that are not among the best known. Sometimes what you get is a real gem – such as Rozycski’s “Eros & Psyche” performed by the Polish National opera. What a wonderful opera and a terrific production.
11.                  “Medea” by Cherubini from the Staatskappelle Berlin with Baremboim conducting featuring Sondra Yoncheva as Medea and  Castronuovo as Jason. Terrific!

12.                  Last but not least, also from Staatskapelle Berlin was their Tristan, live streamed back last March. It was a deeply psychological production, but very well done. In particular I loved the English Horn and the way he was woven into the staging in the last act. Andreas Schager was Tristan and he was excellent.

Here are the honorable mention:

“L’Enfant et les Sortiledges” Ravel - Berlin Philharmonic
“Ariodante” (Handel) – Vienna 2018 – performed by Les Arts Florrisants – An incredible performance. But this opera’s plot I find horrible. People are so quick to accuse Cosi of being misogynist when it is not in any way, but Ariodante – yeah, big time. But the music is divine especially when sung and performed by William Christie and colleagues.
“Begger’s Opera” by Pepusch again with Christie & Co. This was an amazing production and performance.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” – NBC Live – John Legend, Alice Cooper – Best performance of this show I’ve ever experienced. Great band and brass (horn!)
“Julius Caesar” and NT Live presentation with Ben Wishaw as Caccius – terrific!
“War and Peace” (Prokofiev) – Mariinsky 2018 (on tour in Paris) with Gergiev, Garifulina, Bondarenko, Diadkova, Aleksashkin, Petrenko. I saw this opera at the Met with Netrebko and Dima, both at the beginnings of their careers in 2000 about 6 months after 9/11.
“Semele” – Komische Oper Berlin – Directed by Kosky (I loved this production).
“La Nonne Sanglante” (The Bloody Nun – Gounod) – Paris, Opera Comique – Spyres, Santoni, Boutiller – When do you ever get to hear any Gounod besides “Faust” and R&J?” This opera is a terrific ghost story and great fun with a terrific score! Beautifully performed!
“Macbeth” (Shakespeare) RSC 2018 – NTLive – Named above
“Fiery Angel” (Prokofiev) – Aix 2018 – Edgy and challenging – Not exactly a lovely time at the opera. This piece is pretty dark. Great production!
“Magic Flute” – Garsington 2018 – The production is excellent, singing is good. This is the “Handmaid’s Tale” MF! I found it very provocative and effective.
“Les Troyans” – Vienna – DiDonato, Jovanovitch, Antonacci, Park, Plachetka – McVicar – Outstanding beautiful production, beautifully performed.
“Faust” (speaking of Gounod) performed at the Teatro Real with Piotr Beczala, Luca Pisaroni, Marina Rebeka, Stephane Degout and Serena Malfi – Terrific singing and a great cast – Mostly rather traditional production with some interesting and whimsical updatings. This production included the Spinning Song which is almost always sadly cut but, alas, they did cut Siebel’s 2nd aria. I really liked what they did with Walgurgis Night though the finale was a little disappointing.

“King and I” from London with Kelly O’Hara and Ken Wantanabe, but Ruthie Ann Miles as Lady Thiang just about steals the show. She is terrific.  Saw it live in NYC with the same cast and it is still a great production.
“Peer Gynt” (Grieg) – Vienna Staateoper Ballet – Wonderful and beautifully danced.

“Cunning Little Vixen” performed by the Brno Opera – Excellent production and performance – in fact, the best I have experienced. Though the Berlin Phil production comes in as a close 2nd.

Last – my biggest disappointment.  “Bánk Bán” (Erkel) performed Hungarian State Opera on tour at the David Koch Theater. I watched this on OV and it was a really interesting opera and production so I was looking forward to seeing it live. The live performance was a complete mess. But I will say that the coloratura singing Melinda was terrific.

I have to mention in parting that I traveled to Chicago specifically to experience the Chicago Symphony performing the Shostakovich Symphony #13, Babi Yar. It was a wonderful performance and the presence of the composer’s elderly widow, who traveled from Russia for the event made the entire experience even more special. This piece takes on the issue of anti-semitism and is one of the most powerful works in the orchestral repertoire.







Saturday, July 7, 2018

Of Pork Pies and Trusting the Material...

I am going to express a minority opinion.  Apparently Union Ave. Opera's new production of HMS Pinafore has been receiving rave reviews and I wish I could jump on the bandwagon, but I just can't. I found the production very disappointing.  Now, it wasn't the performance per se.  The leads were mostly very good. Josephine and the Captain were the standouts, but Ralph and Sir Joseph were also quite excellent. I liked Little Buttercup's voice and she I think was a good actress but she needed to dial it back a bit.  Not only that but the chorus was terrific. They used a rather small chorus but it was amazingly well balanced even so.  It wasn't the set, or the costumes all of which were very good.  So then what is it?

The problem was with the director.  I got the distinct impression that this director at the very least did not trust the material that he had to work with. Consequently we were subjected to constant over-direction.  It started with the overture. Why can't the overture stand on its own, we will figure out soon enough that Ralph and Josephine have a thing for each other.  We simply don't need to be presented with this during the overture.  But no, bits and business filled the stage during the overture completely distracting us from the music. But that was only the beginning for what followed was a never ending cascade of silly and irrelevant bits that the director inserted in an effort (I suppose) to be funny.  Except, the material as it is is already really funny. 

A little story: Back in the days when Gilbert walked on this earth, his leading baritone Rutland Barrington started adding bits to add to the humor. Gilbert insisted he stop.  "Why?" asked Barrington, "The people are laughing."  Gilbert responded something to the effect that "If you went on stage and sat on a pork pie people would laugh but it adds nothing to the show and is ultimately completely distracting."  And, this is what this director gave us: a heaping serving of pork pie!

Several other egregious examples - The 2nd act entracte begins with a brief orchestral reprise of Little Buttercup's song from act 1. There is a melancholy to this brief orchestral moment that beautifully sets up the very melancholy song that the Captain sings to open act 2 ("Fair Moon to Thee").  It is a beautiful song and was beautifully sung in this performance.  But the effect was ruined by the senseless stage business that filled the entracte. It was not necessary to see the crew and the girls (sister, cousins and aunts) chasing each other and dancing. But for the me absolute worst moment occurred during what should be the highlight of the entire opera both musically and dramatically: "The Hours Creep On Apace" followed by the aria "A Simple Sailor Lowly Born." Gilbert and Sullivan are at their absolute best here. This is also the most serious moment in the show as it deals with the serious issue of social class.  We might think this is irrelevant today, but it is not, we have a lot of class issues that we struggle with.  And not only is it still a serious issue, but what the text points out is that perhaps even more important are the pre-conceptions that one has about class which prevents people from being able to relate to one another in a constructive way. And on top of it Sullivan's music is simply glorious. But we were not able to appreciate the profundity of this moment as this director filled the aria with bits that completely distracted the audience from the text and from the singer, who was also glorious by the way (it is a darn shame and she deserves an apology for this!) We don't need to see a future Ralph carrying two babies around while he is wearing a t-shirt and smoking cigars. We get it, because it is all in the text! And we don't need to watch Sir Joseph and the Captain acting pompous, we have already had quite enough of that, thank you very much.  The result was laughter that covered the singer and destroyed to moment!  Inexcusable! 

But that is not all. Presumably while Josephine is singing the Captain and Sir Joseph are drinking, and drinking and drinking and by the time they get to the Bell Trio they are totally drunk. It was simply not funny to watch two drunk guys stumble around on stage during what should be the funniest moment of the entire show.  In fact, this trio usually gets encores.  Mercifully we were spared this and the drunk men were able to stumble off stage.  Well, except for the Captain who amazingly was able to sober up immediately for his duet with Dick Deadeye.  And Hebe must have been ready with coffee back stage because Sir Joseph was also amazingly sober at his next entrance as well.

I was not going to write anything but I was so disappointed and upset by the way this director ruined Josephine's aria and the Bell Trio I felt I had to write.  Look - to all directors - Gilbert knew what he is doing.  He doesn't need you to add anything. He is amazingly funny as it is in the script.  If you have a great cast (as they have for this production) all you need to do is do the show seriously and it will be incredibly funny and even a little profound.  This production was neither funny or profound.  But it was at least very well sung, so that is something (though for some reason the orchestra was terribly soft.  The singers covered them almost for the entire evening.  What I could hear was very good but I think they could play out a bit more!)

Here is a video clip of Josephine's 2nd act aria - Valerie Masterson:
The Hours Creep On Apace

Friday, June 15, 2018

"E Pluribus Unum" – A Reflection on “An American Soldier” performed by Opera Theater of St. Louis


As part of its ongoing commitment to perform new works, Opera Theater of St. Louis this year commissioned and then presented a two act version of the opera “An American Soldier.”  The music, composed by Huang Ruo to a libretto by the well-known playwright David Henry Hwang (of “M. Butterfly” fame) tells the true story of a 19 year old Chinese-American man who enlists in the Army after high school because he wants to be an American! He wants to be seen as an American and he thinks this is the way to become a real American.  Despite opposition from family and friends and driven by this desire to be completely American (and the Army represents this to him) he enlists.  Initially things go well.  Basic training is a positive experience for him, but once he is stationed first in Fairbanks, Alaska and then shipped off to Kandahar in Afghanistan things go from bad to worse. And the issue is racism – bitter, intense racism. Despite his attempts to get along and do his job he is tormented and miserably abused to the point where he finally can no longer stand it and he commits suicide.  His commanding officer is court-martialed (Sgt. Markum is actually a composite of multiple officers who were court-martialed in 2012). Various witnesses then spin out the story of what happened to Danny over the two acts through flashbacks and short solo testimonies.  It is a chilling story of intense racial abuse (which includes horrible physical abuse) and touches on a variety of parallel issues (like the sexual assault of women in uniform!) And the opera raises a series of difficult questions – such as - who ever thought that having “racial Thursdays” was a good idea (at the base in Fairbanks, for the “good of morale” soldiers were encouraged to insult each other with the most heinous racial slurs they can think of)? Why is there little to no accountability for officers in the field who can behave in any way they want, abusing whoever they want? Why is it that men like Sgt. Marcum feel like the only way they can assert themselves is to put others down?  Why do so many white men like Marcum feel so threatened? Why do women and men who are assaulted find that any attempt to bring their abusers to justice is met by a thick brick wall?

The other important aspect of the story is the relationship between Danny (performed brilliantly by tenor Andrew Stenson) and his mother (beautifully portrayed by mezzo Mika Shigematsu).  Into this story was also included a girlfriend Josephine (also beautifully performed by the great internationally acclaimed coloratura soprano Kathleen Kim). Mother Chen’s struggles were an important part of the story. She cannot understand her son’s intense desire to become Americanized by becoming a soldier.  Initially she and Josephine cannot understand why Danny would choose to turn his back on a full college scholarship in order to enlist? The women simply cannot grasp the importance for young men to feel included and Danny feels separate.  He feels less than whole.  Growing up in Chinatown where he can speak Chinese but cannot write it he feels neither Chinese nor American and he desperately wants to belong.  But ultimately her struggle to understand her son gives way to another struggle: the struggle for justice. She demands justice for her son but finds that she is up against an institution that is unsympathetic.  The heart of this tragic story is found here and I found it deeply moving and upsetting.

            Given all that transpires the great final chorus - E Pluribus Unum – Out of the Many, One! – is less a celebration and more a reminder of how far we have missed the mark and failed.  These words that move the opera to its conclusion are sung as a final choral ensemble and interspersed with a commentary by the Military Judge (the excellent bass Nathan Stark). This nameless judge whose only identification is as the highest ranking officer in the opera – a Colonel – he presides over the court-martial trial that forms the frame of this work.  We are reminded at the outset of this choral ensemble that President Harry Truman had banned any kind of racial discrimination within the armed forces and that for a time the US Armed forces were somewhat of a model for the country, but this is no longer the case.  Nevertheless the judge reminds us that as a people as Americans are “White or Black, Asian, Native or Sikh, Christian, Jewish or Muslim, LGBT” It doesn’t matter.  We are all Americans and it is in this tapestry of diversity where the potential greatness of America is to be found. Whenever we approach greatness as a nation it is directly because of our diversity, but we mostly fail because of our fear of the other, our desire for power and wealth that overwhelms our ability to reach out of ourselves and embrace others. This fear then gives way to hatred – irrational hatred that cuts us off from one another and eats away at the foundation of the nation. The motto of the United States – E Pluribus Unum - points us towards all of this as it also strikes at the heart of this country’s original sin – racism! Ugly, bitter racism bred by fear and hate has always threatened the future of this nation and it will continue to do so. Whatever strength America has will lie in bringing all of the diverse threads of this nation into a whole and those who work against this are working to weaken and destroy.  The words of the motto of the United States additionally indict the current political leadership beginning at the top and including all those who enable this travesty to continue. This administration seems to be bent on destroying everything that this nation stands for. It coddles dictators and white supremacists, it arrests immigrants and in a disgusting and evil twist rips children from their parents and throws resources into a idiotic wall which it thinks will do – what? – keep out immigrants I suppose.  But it won’t.  All it will do is to further weaken and divide the nation and make us even more a pariah on the world stage.

And even though it is not a part of the opera, I have to bring up one of the most insidious dimensions of all of this and that is the Evangelical Christian dimension. It is appalling that so many so-called “Christian” leaders and “Christians” continue to baptize hate and exclusion as being somehow reflective of faith in the one who loved all and calls on all to be open to all. But this isn’t new – “Christians” devised “Manifest Destiny” from the Bible to justify the slaughter of Native peoples and defended the institution of slavery by extracting individual verses from the bible. This is called proof-texting and it works particularly well when you adopt a literalist way of looking at the bible. For with literalism the context doesn’t matter – what went before or comes after doesn’t matter – who Jesus was and what Jesus stands for doesn’t matter – all that matters is extracting the right collection of words from a bible verse in order to pummel an opponent and defend ones hate and racism and homophobia and transphobia and on and on.  But literalism is unfaithful, literalism is evil and is in fact a denial of scripture.  Context enables us to understand exactly what the scripture says and in this case it is pretty clear (with any number of rather explicit verses available as well) – racism is evil; hate is evil! We who claim to be Christians are called to love and love includes standing up and defending those who need defending.  Love also demands that we hold our leaders accountable. The progressive rotting of the fabric of this nation will continue until we can find a way to embrace our diversity. If America is ever to be great this is what will make America great = embracing diversity!

There is another issue that struck me profoundly by this performance and is related to the behavior of the audience. I have found it curious that predominately white audiences seem to have a tendency to cheer those perceived to be good guys and to boo those perceived to be the villains. No “gray” area here – it is either one or the other – good or bad! And it happens all the time. Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” is a perfect example. Invariably no matter where the opera is performed in the United States the white American character – Lt. B.F. Pinkerton - is always booed by the white American audiences. Why? The way he treats Butterfly? His attitudes towards others who are different than he is perhaps? But these attitudes are shared by the Consul, Sharpless, by the way and he is never booed. These attitudes were also the collective philosophy of the nation in the late 19th century and we are complicit in them since we have benefited from them. So, what is the point?  Are we attempting to assuage our own collective guilt by painting Pinkerton as “the bad guy” and booing him.  Does it make us feel superior to be able to identify, briefly at least with the abandoned Japanese woman who we just watched commit suicide on stage?

At the performance of “An American Soldier” I found the booing of Wayne Tigges (who plays Sgt. Marcum) absolutely appalling. Who do they think they are booing?  Marcum?  First of all, the point of curtain calls is that we finally get to meet and express our appreciation to the performers and artists, not the characters. It was not Sgt. Marcum who came out for a bow, it was Wayne Tigges who brilliantly performed this difficult role and was able to convey a variety of different dimensions of this complex character.  But even more important is that we must see that Sgt. Marcum is us! He is especially us white folks who think we are better than everyone else, who glory in our white privilege and feel threatened and fearful by those who are other.  To boo this character is a pathetic attempt to distance ourselves from this reality.  But you can boo all you want because the reality remains – we are all Sgt. Marcum and the sooner we recognize this and begin to address it the better it will be for us as a people!

Opera Theater of St. Louis has again presented a new work that is not only timely but in every way deeply moving and profoundly challenging. I was so affected by the performance last night I could not sleep. All of us need to take this message to heart – it is, after all, the motto of our nation: E Pluribus Unum.  In that little phrase is contained all that is necessary to “make American great…” – I won’t use the word “again” because it is irrelevant. American’s greatness, such as it is, has always been found in its diversity. And if America is ever to achieve any taste of greatness it will be because we find a way to embrace this gift of diversity.

(Feel free to comment.  But please note that I will not tolerate hate speech and such comments will be swiftly deleted!)

For more information about the remaining performances and for photos of the performance go to:
https://www.opera-stl.org/season-and-events/productions/an-american-soldier-2018