Midtown Opera Festival
Since Ned Canty arrived in 2010 to lead Opera Memphis, the organization has been pushing the envelope to raise the level of recognition and appreciation of the art form.
This is the third year for one of his key programs aimed at reaching a wider audience. The 2015 Midtown Opera Festival during 10 days in April presented two performances each of three operas and other events, including a film, concerts, a play and even opera-themed vaudeville.
The edgiest opera was Tom Cipullo’s “Glory Denied”, a 2007 one-act opera that, despite a few flaws, was a wrenching, touching and deeply affecting production.
It’s the story of Col. Jim Thompson, held by the Viet Cong for nine years, longer than any prisoner of war in American history. The torture and isolation put him at the mercy of his captors, and while it was grueling, it was a hell he understood. It was, however, when he came home in 1973 that he was ambushed by a very different America and family he didn’t recognize.
The story is taken from Tom Philpott’s book “Glory Denied”, which forms Cipullo’s libretto that mainly consists of verbatim statements by Thompson and his wife, Alyce.
This effort to be faithful to the source text did no favors to the telling of the story. Meaningful moments were gutted by awkward passages of stiff prose. Lyrics and poetry exist to provide power to thoughts and feelings behind stories—why constrain emotional creativity with limiting literalism?
In fact, there was plenty of genius elsewhere. Cipullo mixed the chronology, moving generally forward from the beginning, but freely going back and forth in time and between two sets of singers—the younger and older versions of Jim and Alyce Thompson.
These overlapping moments and characters spurred the inspired dynamic that presented the heartbreaking story of a man and a woman overwhelmed by what they didn’t ask for and what they couldn’t control.
The stark opera began without preamble on a plain set, orchestra to one side and the four singers arrayed on the stage. Younger Thompson, in POW pajamas, was near an oppressive looking set piece that was platform and prison. Younger Alyce and Older Alyce were nearby on a platform that represented home. Older Thompson, wearing a U.S. Army officer Class A green uniform, limped about when not slouching in his chair next to a table with liquor at the ready.
There was scant physical action. Characters moved about, approaching each other but rarely connecting. If Thompson was isolated in prison, he was not confused—he created ways to discipline himself. But on his return stateside, he found himself solitary and disoriented.
The performers in the Opera Memphis production were astonishing. At the center was Older Thompson, sung by baritone Michael Mayes with power and nuance. Mayes has performed this role before and has so refined his skill at the dramatic and in singing that it’s difficult to imagine how it could be done better. His muscular presence has the bearing of an officer, yet we saw and heard him crumbling. There were times when Mayes mimicked his captors who demanded he obey rules, and at such moments he offered a malignant, chilling smile.
His younger self was sung by tenor Brandon Snook who brought remarkable clarity and beauty to his performance. His higher, youthful, more hopeful voice contrasted with Older Thompson, the fading lion.
Similarly, the two Alyces reflected the unkind relationship between hope and reality. Soprano Jennifer Goode Cooper was Older Alyce, who looked back on the nine years as a time when—even as her husband was helpless—she had to make decisions about their four children and her own existence. With no assurance that her husband was alive, she told the kids he was not coming back and she sought to have him declared dead. She met another man and started a relationship with him. As she bitterly sang, "He went through Hell, but so did I.” When Thompson forgave her, she snapped back, “What have I done that calls for forgiveness?” Cooper’s beautiful voice took on a hard edge during these moments, and she was electrifying. Similarly affecting was soprano Cree Carrico as Younger Alyce, whose rich, clear voice was light and sweet before the anguish took over and hope disappeared.
There are brilliant moments—Older Thompson’s raging recitation of buzzwords, fads and personalities of the 1960s and ’70s is inspired. But there is also tedium, with a speech to his church that makes its emotional point early and takes too long to get to amen.
Flaws aside, the production was done with passion and was a clear triumph for the Opera Memphis’ Midtown Opera Festival. Cipullo’s music is beautiful and nuanced. It was performed by members of the PRIZM Ensemble who interpreted it beautifully.
Going in an entirely different direction, the festival lightened the tone considerably with “Les Mamelles de Tirésias”, a surrealistic farce by 20th century composer Francis Poulenc with inflatable dolls, silly duels, puckish pianists, weird science and babies that come from … well, not the usual places.
Wacky as it is, “Mamelles” actually has a fairly serious premise related to war. It began as a play by Guillaume Apollinaire that premiered in Paris in 1917. World War I was taking its toll and the message in the prologue was that France needed to increase the birth rate. Poulenc’s opera opened in 1947 with the same message coming out of a different world war.
The point remains serious throughout the opera, but it’s thoroughly drenched in the absurd. At the start, the disgruntled wife Thérèse declared she is sick of her husband and his attentions. She wants to do what men do—be a doctor, a lawyer, a president. She wants to make war, not children. So Thérèse bares her breasts (her “mamelles” are balloons) and they float up, but just a little way. She pops them, immediately grows a beard and heads off to live her own life while her bewildered husband wonders what happened to his bacon.
More strangeness ensues. Hubby devises a way to make babies using will-power. Also, the more children he manufactures, the richer he gets. Absurd!
The weird, funny, dizzying story was matched by characters singing and dancing to polkas and waltzes, dressing in jammies and, at one point, dancing with a sort of Mel Brooks abandon with blow-up dolls that have balloons for heads.
The production was wickedly funny and the performers splendid. Thérèse/Tirésias was sung flawlessly (with and without balloons) by Chelsea Miller, an Opera Memphis Artist-in-Residence who shows enormous promise. Tenor Dominic Armstrong’s strong voice and comedic sensibility provided much to like in his performance as the husband.
“Mamelles” was a delightful experience, even if 20th century French surreal farce is not your usual glass of Bordeaux.
American Record Guide, July/August 2015 issue