Experiments in Opera at HERE

New York Gets Four Delicious Mini Operas

By: - Jul 05, 2024

The world premiere of “Five Ways to Die” took place at HERE in New York. If the subject is “death,” it must be an opera. Tosa jumps to her death from the walls of  Castel Sant'Angelo. Aida and her lover die in an airless Egyptian tomb. La traviata coughs herself to death in a Parisian garret.  Defying death, all these women sing marvelously.  We suspend disbelief, carried away by gorgeous tunes.

Experiments in  Opera (EiO) makes death very present. The titles of these new mini operas are telling. In Mischief, President Prosciutto of Battery Park (Melisa Luna Bonetti), her assistant Mozzarella (Rose Hegele), General Lamb Shank (Seth Gilman), and the rat scientist Champ de Mars (Alize Francheska Rozsnyai), debate using a virus from the sewers to eliminate humanity. 

Serial Killers in the City and Valhalla are wity and kooky.  Rozsnyai, a brilliant coloratura soprano, displays wide-ranging dramatic talents, naughty, weird, twisted and also movingly normal. She is a physical performer moving to the beat and gesturing with hands and arms. The music is strangely calm. The  story telling shines in her mocking attitude. 

EiO does not rely on old stories or movie scripts.  Rather they create original stories in a Writer’s Room. Take a look at the movie “Mank” in which S.J. Perelman, Ben Hecht, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Herman Mankiewicz write in a room assisted by a topless secretary showing off sequined nipples.

EiO’s unique turn finds original stories and characters. Founded just twelve years ago, works they’ve produced have ranged widely in style. Most contemporary operas are developed from biopics and movies. Suspension of disbelief is crucial, because in life we don’t customarily sing our way through the day. If you're creating the life of Malcolm X or a real boxer who killed his opponent after he called him “gay,” it’s difficult to suspend disbelief.  EiO takes on the challenge by creating original stories and characters who are very much of the now.  Murder, mayhem and skulduggery abound.  As camp and sardonic as the works often are, they are also moving.  

Novelist A.M. Homes has sat in the EiO writer’s room. Playwrights Annie Baer and Lucas Hnath are admired and channeled. Work is collaborative.  The result: operas as divergent as four minis in “Five Ways to Die” and the wild and wacky Chuny in Heat about a teen-ager nicknamed Chunky after the candy bar sectioned into pyramids.  She lives in a bathing suit by the pool of her dysfunctional family’s Los Angeles home as members die off in bizatrre opera style. 

Five Ways to Die minis are set in an empty shopping mall, a rat-infested city and ladies-who-lunch who discuss life, love, and how best to dispose of a body. The four mini-operas featured music from Song Ae Kim, Del’Shawn Taylor, Jessie Gelaznik and Jason Cady as well as librettos from Joanie Brittingham, Britt Hewitt, Marcella Murray, and Cady. Director Shannon Sindelar paces the operas perfectly. Musical direction by Dmitry Glivinskiy gave us a propulsive beat from a five-piece chamber orchestra, including guitar and bass clarinet. 

The small venue at HERE is used to maximum effect, the stage divided into two parts and intermittent columns that are also used as props to open up the space.  

Language of the libretto for EiO is conversational.  The conversation is not so much between characters as it is with us, the audience, drawing us in with lively images, and punchy rhymes that catch the ear.  Usually when language is spoken of as 'musical', talk is of extended vowels and consonants that beat.  For EiO, language has very much its own orchestration and drama. The model is not poetry, although rhymes crop up often. The net effect is not recitatif, but rather a rich musical word line that engages. 

Music is not minimized, but it has an unusually jazzy beat. The chamber orchestra for EiO has a rocking percussion and a few strings, more informal than an elegant opera house pit.  

You never question the operatic qualities of EiO’s productions.  You’re too engaged, amused and moved.