The Chamber Opera Players of Los Angeles, founded by E. Scott Levin and Ariel Pisturino, specializes in presenting quirky chamber operas which can be performed in under an hour, using small casts and piano accompaniment in an intimate space. On November 7 and 8, they showcased two works: George N. Gianopoulos’s The Last Silent Voice – a world premiere – and Ned Rorem’s Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters.
In a terse libretto by Monique Boudreau, The Last Silent Voice asks, “what if suddenly everyone else in the world became mute and only you could speak: would it be terrifying or exhilarating?” The two characters to whom this happens have opposite reactions, one rejoicing in the sublime silence and the other recoiling in horror from her feelings of isolation. Returning to their shared apartment after witnessing that everyone around them has become abruptly silent, they are shocked to discover that both of them can still speak.
The woman (sung by Ariel Pisturino) becomes hysterical, weeping and wailing in phrases which repeatedly climax in sustained high C’s, desperately attempting to get reassurance from the man (sung by E. Scott Levin), who prefers not to hear her. If he could have been the last voice he would not have spoken at all, but would have communed silently with the newly discovered beauty inside him. Her incessant shrieking drives him mad, and he finally threatens to stab her with a chef’s knife. Unable to complete the act, he chooses to cut his own throat rather than ever again endure the harsh sounds of humanity, having briefly tasted complete peace in silence.
Pisturino’s warm, rich lyric soprano takes on intense, dramatic colors in the role of the frantic woman, her voice tearing through the room at full volume in the discordant rollercoaster of her character. Levin’s dark, legato baritone, with a less explosive vocal line, argues for calm reason to prevail, but his booming sound only manages to contribute to the overall cacophony driven by the piano, masterfully played by accompanist Stephen Karr. A Greek chorus of three singers (Christa Stevens, Jessica Mamey and Jon Lee Keenan) chant commentary now and then from inside the kitchen cabinets, which open to reveal a solid black interior with the singers dressed in deep black clothing, only their pale faces and arms visible in the light.
Tension builds from the first note of the musical score with occasional moments of release, too brief to allow for any comfort, then an immediate return to the escalating drama. The entire story takes place in fifteen short minutes. Puzzling to watch, full of foreboding, desperation and denial; mysterious, threatening, enigmatic, it is an offbeat tale of love, terror and internal chaos. Oddly enough, the man who loves the new reality is so distraught at the prospect of ever losing it and returning to the old “noisy” world that he kills himself… while the woman who fears silence more than death itself muddles through until the chorus announces that things in the world have returned to normal.
This production sets the small stage as a two-room 1960s apartment: a boxy refrigerator in a kitchen with built-in cabinets, an oven/range under the kitchen window, a kitchen table with chairs, and a flowered oilcloth table cover; plus a black and white TV (complete with rabbit ears and white noise) and a divan in the living room. Costumes are simple and convey the era, especially Pisturino’s lovely black and white polka-dot dress with a tight waist and flared skirt. The drama is enhanced with spotlights in various colors: at the moment of the man’s death, red floodlights bathe the entire stage in intense, blood-red color. Sets and stage direction were provided by Josh Shaw, with music conducted by David Rentz. While a bit bewildering at first take, the opera is unavoidably provocative of further thought.
After a brief intermission, COPOLA’s presentation continued with Ned Rorem’s Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters, with libretto by Gertrude Stein.
The scene opens with a view of a giant bed (five pillows wide) slanted toward the audience, into which three little girls (Stevens as Helen, Pisturino as Jenny, Mamey as Ellen) neatly tucked in at pillow positions 1, 3 and 5. They explain in a charming trio that they are three sisters who are NOT sisters, because they are all orphans.
Two little boys (Levin as Sylvester, Keenan as Samuel) immediately poke their heads out from under the blankets at the foot of the bed (pillow positions 2 and 4) and proclaim that they are brothers who ARE brothers, having “the same mother and father” who are “alive and kicking,” which means they are not orphans at all, and “not even tall.” Oh, and BTW, they are also not brave and not strong and never do wrong…
Within moments, four of the children are out of bed and running around the room, sucking pacifiers and dragging teddy bears while Jenny sits in the center of the bed wearing a bejeweled tiara, demanding to know what comes next. Samuel suggests they play “murder”, and appoints himself the murderer.
Ranging in age, it seems, from toddler to perhaps six or seven years old, the characters are all young enough for sleeper pajamas with feet and mittens and trapdoors in the back, or nightshirts (one imprinted with “Mommy’s Little Angel”) and a variety of headwear. Childlike, conversational recits plus silly, impetuous behavior and hugely oversized props support the pretense that they really are little people. The toy box at the foot of the bed is large enough for one child at a time to climb inside and hide, and is filled with stuff for Samuel to wear on his hunts: a policeman’s hat, a plastic gun, an Indian headdress, a hatchet.
For their game to be about killing, however, makes everything feel scary and morbid. Lights go out onstage between scenes and at each murder, creating almost complete darkness and making the moment of death actually quite mysterious. Fortunately, the “dead” children can’t hold still on the floor; they occasionally roll around and suck their thumbs or their pacifiers and wiggle their legs or pinch each other, destroying any illusion that they are really dead. They also get up and leave the room when the lights go off, then come back again later wearing sheets with flashlights pointed at their faces under the sheets, pretending to be ghosts, each with a solo to sing. (Is this the new generation of opera…you sing after you die?)
With a libretto written almost purely as conversation, the vocal parts are predominantly speechlike. Each character has a short solo or two which usually leads right back into the string of non-melodic interactions with the other characters. This gives the cast plenty of opportunity to act, but only a few brief moments for just singing. A lovely gift from the composer is the a cappella ensemble at the end, when all the children are finally “dead” and puzzling over whether the whole thing had been real or make-believe. Five voices weave in and out of close and distant harmonies, getting lost in their own songs and finding each other again in sustained tones that resolve with the piano’s re-entry. Eventually even their “post-game wrap up” wears them out, and they all agree to “shut up!” (as Jenny put it) and go to bed.
The piano accompaniment changes character as rapidly as the children change their minds about what they are doing: one minute elegantly lyrical, then bombastic and raucously jumbled, whimsical, threatening, even tiptoe-ing around with the characters. Karr sparkled on the keys with just the right touch, whether the music called for tender, little girl daydreams or roaring murderer’s threats, always so connected to the singers that they seem to be one voice. Rentz, the company’s Resident Conductor, held the whole thing together musically from the shadows off stage left.
Sets and artistic direction were provided by Resident Director Josh Shaw. The set is ingenious, with just enough furniture to create another world for the audience. The giant bed takes up almost the whole stage, providing a child-friendly platform from which the characters can tumble easily onto the floor, jump up and down or stand and deliver their lines. The characters onstage move around as if in a child’s mind, spontaneous and natural. Spotlights and colored floodlights accentuate the drama of the story, creating surprise with sudden hue changes at critical moments and filling the set with vivid color that intensifies the emotional content of the music.
The evening spent with COPOLA was saturated with wonderful shades of unreality, each opera from a distinctly different universe. Both ask questions about death and loneliness and proffer answers from their characters’ viewpoints. There was lots to enjoy and plenty to think about afterward, an excellent combination in entertainment. Superior vocal performances abound, along with terrific pianism, excellent stage and musical direction and interesting lighting, resulting in a presentation that satisfies on many levels. Count it as another win in a string of successful shows by this young company.