In performance: "Songspiel"
Web-only review: Songspiel at Georgetown.
Since I’ve talked about opera companies doing less with more, it would be ungallant of me not to praise American Opera Theater, which certainly keeps an adventurous spirit and an eye on the drama of opera. Its latest production, "Songspiel" (which came to Georgetown this past weekend) even featured a genuine diva, Sylvia McNair, a multiple Grammy Award winner and former Met diva who gamely explored her less glamorous side playing a homeless street person with a cabaret singer's pipes. Lots of ideas course through an AOT production, and not all of them take, but there was a lot to like in "Songspiel," specifically in the way the director and founder of the troupe, Timothy Nelson, found to tell a story.
(read more after the jump)
"Songspiel" is a conglomerate of songs by Kurt Weill, assembled into a quasi-dramatic narrative outlining a homeless woman's life in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina: she fell for the wrong man ("Surabaya Johnny"), became an prostitute ("Alabama Song"), was saved by passing missionaries and fell for the right man ("My Ship") who then was killed ("Dirge for a Soldier"), and so on. Told thus, it sounds a bit heavy-handed, and it does threaten to skew in that direction, but the narrative touch is actually fairly deft: Nelson moves the story along with implications rather than too much obvious spelling out.
And he had a number of inventive ideas. After McNair's first entrance, so unglamorous as to be self-conscious -- shuffling in untied tennis shoes and a shapeless overcoat and knit hat -- she sits on the ground in a filthy bus shelter and props up a Please Help sign, only to reveal other hand-lettered signs bearing the lyrics to the first song, "Youkali" (sung by the versatile though vocally limited Rebecca Duren). This creative presentation of supertitles (utilized again in the final number, "Complainte de la Seine") made the song's vision of foreign climes into a kind of fever dream on the part of the characters. Later, a figure in a sweatshirt slouched in, looking like a local, watched the proceedings, and then held a mike to his lips and began creating a one-man percussion section through vocal effects (a technique known as beatboxing): it was a virtuoso performer named Shodekeh, whose contribution linked the music to the present day in a smart and credible way, no more intrusively than an actual percussionist would have been in an instrumental ensemble comprised of trumpet, bass and piano.
The main story could be McNair, a former opera singer in the process of reinventing herself for a second act (she is preparing her one-woman cabaret show called "Subject to Change"). She, like "Songspiel" as a whole, showed promise, and sometimes excellence. She certainly had far more vocal presence than her two colleagues on stage, the pale baritone Todd Wieczorek and the gutsy Duren (who played everything from a prostitute to a chanteuse to a missionary in her various supporting roles). Compared to them, in fact, McNair was a paragon of color and vocal drama. But though she threw herself into her songs and showed an admirable lower register, her upper notes lacked some of the pizazz one expected. Part of the problem was the decision to amplify the singers, inexplicable in such a small space; all three of them seemed to respond to their body mikes by failing to support their voices, reining in the potential vocal power to a mere croon. The instrumental ensemble, led by Eileen Cornett, was terrific.
All in all, it was an inventive show with a star worth hearing, and another demonstration that American Opera Theater is a valuable presence in the region. The work of theirs I've seen has been uneven, but there is no denying their admirable and unorthodox spirit of creativity. "Songspiel" is the most successful of their endeavors I've seen to date, and its innovation alone is something to treasure in a field that tends to be far too traditional.
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