One only has to attend a local Metropolitan opera moviecast to know that opera is popular in Princeton. What is lesser known to audiences in the area is the process by which an opera comes to be. The Princeton University Music Department, in collaboration with the Lewis Center for the Arts, has spent the past few years immersed in a creative project bringing professionals and students together to produce three one-act operas exploring the relationship among music, text, and the body onstage. The three one-act operas presented this past weekend in McCarter’s Berlind Theater were diverse in theme and musical style, but were bound together in their uniqueness and challenge to the creative process.
Saturday night’s presentation (the performance was also held Friday night) included two extended one-act operas and one of shorter length, but less time did not necessarily mean less material. Director Mark DeChiazza bracketed James Chu’s 10-minute tennis-themed opera, dense in music and dramatic nuance, with works by two well-established composers, the first was Anthony Davis’s Lear on the Second Floor. Throughout his extensive compositional career, Mr. Davis has drawn his operatic storylines from some of America’s darker political moments, and Lear on the 2nd Floor brought the Shakespearean story of King Lear into the modern-day dilemma of Alzheimer’s diagnosis and caregiving. Mr. Davis consulted with medical experts during the work’s composition to get the details right, and incorporated visual and aural effects to emphasize a range of confusion. The lead character, transplanted into a high-powered 21st-century neuroscience career, was dramatically sung by soprano Susan Narucki. Although occasionally overpowered by the small orchestra, Ms. Narucki demonstrated solid command of a very complex role. Opera is full of characters who descend into madness (usually played by sopranos), but Ms. Narucki’s Nora Lear wandered among a wide range of mental uncertainties, including seeing visions of her dead husband, decisively sung by bass-baritone Justin Hopkins. Nora Lear’s daughters, all vying for custodial rights, were effectively sung by Tara Naoko Ohrtman, Katherine Buzard, and Tessa Romano. Ms. Buzard in particular demonstrated a strong vocal sound as a defiant daughter. Humor came into this dark theme in the character of the hospital nurse, sung by Jorrell Williams.
Next to an opera about Alzheimer’s, a work taking place in a tennis club might seem like a theatrical piece of cake, but Princeton University student James Chu’s one-act Off Court was full of more political nuance than initially met the ear. Soprano Katherine Buzard (who had a very busy evening) turned in a very different character as the reluctant wife whose husband (sung by Jonathan Choi) desperately wanted to gain acceptance to the very exclusive tennis club. Mr. Chu’s music was underscored with unspoken plotlines about exclusion and compliance, with unique instrumental sonorities from a small orchestra placed onstage as part of the action.
The most theatrically complicated production was saved for last — Barbara White’s Weakness. Based on the Celtic story of The Curse of Macha, Ms. White’s music and libretto introduced one character whose voice and body were separated into two performers: soprano Sarah Davis and dancer Leslie Kraus. With brilliant hair (also matched by the dancer), Ms. Davis showed a spectacular range of vocal styles and intensity, backed by a multi-aged chorus and an unusual orchestration of electric guitar, clarinet, bass clarinet, percussion and shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute. The soaring quality of Ms. Davis’ sound was matched by the litheness and agility of Ms. Kraus, with sections of the opera being positively eerie in mood. No matter what the demanding vocal requirement, Ms. Davis hit every note right, and her regal demeanor was a good contrast to Ms. Kraus’ lightness on the stage. Throughout all three operas, Rachel Hauck’s set design and Jane Cox’s lighting design made the most use of the limited amount of stage at the Berlind.
The Princeton University One-Act Opera Project was a long time coming in preparation, but has certainly focused on something entirely new for the University. A great deal of thought clearly went into selecting these works and figuring out how these pieces could “live together” on the same stage and on the same evening, but all three achieved a goal of taking the form of opera in new directions.