Snapshots of Exciting New Operas

  • by Philip Campbell
  • Wednesday March 7, 2018
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Innovative and aptly named West Edge Opera presented a second year of the company's ambitious programming venture "Snapshot" in the East Bay and San Francisco recently. Showcasing excerpts from five new works by West Coast composers at the historic Independent Order of Odd Fellows Hall in Berkeley and the Taube Atrium Theater in the Wilsey Center for Opera in San Francisco, the 2018 edition proved, again, there's life in the old form yet.

Known for unusual performing venues (warehouses, deserted train stations, etc.), this year West Edge's upcoming Summer Festival will play in the Craneway Conference Center in Richmond, part of an old Ford assembly plant, and proudly feature indoor plumbing for the first time.

The amenities of the sleek and intimately configured Taube Atrium Theater served an enthusiastic audience luxuriously well for "Snapshot 2018." The performers also enjoyed the best setting the high-tech venue could afford. Attending in San Francisco's hub for the arts in Civic Center may not have been exactly off the beaten path, but it proved a very comfortable fit.

General Director Mark Streshinsky opened the program with a restatement of the Company's creative mission, and announced exciting future plans. Each new piece then started with video clips of the composers describing their work, which can also be viewed in their entirety on West Edge's excellent website. It was a clever and concise set-up.

Bold and equally adventurous contemporary chamber-music ensemble Earplay provided sympathetic orchestral support. The group's conductor Mary Chun said all of the writers did their own orchestrations. She and West Edge Musical Director Jonathan Khuner conducted the remarkably varied scores with fine and insightful detail.

"The Last Tycoon," music by Cyril Deaconoff and libretto adapted by David Yezzi, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel of the same name, was the opener. The composer is articulate and obviously experienced in the world of opera. His approximately half-hour sampler was intriguing, and provided a promising glimpse of a work still in progress. Deaconoff's style incorporates musical elements of the story's era, and also displays his own proficient voice. Mary Chun conducted soprano Julia Hathaway, tenors J. Raymond Meyers and Jacob Thompson, and bass-baritone Jason Sarten. Even with the bare-bones staging, they created a believable Jazz Age atmosphere.

"452 Jamestown Place," music and libretto by Katherine Saxon, followed. Her description of the relatively brief excerpt was slightly hampered by an almost self-deprecatory delivery. The piece itself was a disturbing and musically inventive portrayal of a young woman with multiple personalities. Soprano Heidi Moss navigated the demands of the part with strong vocal technique and convincing acting. Jason Sarten listened to her unhinged outbursts with understandable concern. Jonathan Khuner conducted.

"Dynamo," music by Larry London and libretto by William Smock, closed the first half. Their extended soundbite firmly established the relevance of scenes from the life of inventor Thomas Edison to the Silicon Valley world of today. Altogether the piece was more traditional in approach and slightly less gripping than the other operatic snippets, singers Moss, Thompson, Sarten and tenor Darron Flagg, with conductor Khuner, still gave their committed best. The audience responded favorably, and there was definite evidence of a potentially successful future opera.

After intermission, two of the strongest entries finished the show. The recital was not a competition, but both works were prize-worthy. "She Who is Alive," music by Erling Wold and libretto by Robert Harris, is set in a dystopian world where a coldly frightening warlord interrogates a dissident female scientist prisoner. The smooth arpeggios of Wold's deceptively pretty music serve as an ambiguous background to the disquieting questions, a little like Philip Glass in an ominous mood. We want to hear more of this tantalizing score, in the context of a finished production.

Molly Mahoney was realistic in her portrayal of the confused prisoner. J. Raymond Meyers was suffering from some cumulative vocal fatigue, but still chilled the rapt audience as the bloodless inquisitor. Khuner conducted the rich-sounding Earplay ensemble.

"Death of a Playboy," music and libretto by Brian Rosen, centers on a private argument about Hugh Hefner, and includes the clueless observations of various mourners at his funeral. Rosen is a San Francisco-based composer-performer specializing in musical theatre works. His experience shows to great effect in the somewhat glib but remarkably timely libretto. Rose McGowan couldn't have articulated the conflicted feelings of thankfulness and outrage shared by two former Playmates better.

Angry and rueful Rose, beautifully portrayed by mezzo-soprano Molly Mahoney, and less wounded and more forgiving Bernice, realized perfectly by soprano Julia Hathaway, made a nuanced case for Hefner's complicated legacy of sexual liberation and objectification of women, seen from Rosen's male perspective. Jason Sarten was amusing as the baffled husband. Mary Chun conducted the entertaining score, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if "Death of a Playboy" turns out to have legs. It surely comes at just the right moment.

More info on "Snapshot 2018" and Summer Festival 2018 can be found at