Three operas, a courageous presenter, and the importance of illusion: Independent Opera Company’s triple bill

[With the help of the presenter, this review has been updated.  Please see the comments.]

While the “double bill”, two (usually short) operas paired together to make a larger event, is quite common, it’s rare to see a triple bill.  But Independent Opera Company (IOC) tackled just that last weekend, with two performances and three comic operas:  Dale Jergenson’s One Penny Opera, PDQ Bach’s The Stoned Guest, and Gian Carlo Menotti’s very early effort, Amelia Goes to the Ball.  If three operas in one evening sounds like a lot, it is.  But these three selections share charm and brevity in their favor, and it was a fun night.

There was much to love, with outstanding and memorable vocal performances from Joel Balzun (The Husband, Amelia), from Brooke Iva Lohman (Carmen Ghia, Stoned Guest), and from Monika Beal as the irrepressible, cocaine-snorting, dance-crazy Amelia. As her beleaguered hubby, Balzun was strong and suitably uppity, and both he and Ms. Beal managed to make their deeply flawed and not a little crazy characters loveable, somehow — and they sounded great, to boot. Lohman is witty, adorable and comes off as a real, live Disneyesque princess as the coquettish Carmen Ghia, singing the rather difficult score with ease and only a very few musical kerfuffles. She’s one to watch.

The cast seasoned the evening with comic commitment and loads of energy, including a strong portrayal from newcomer from the IE Sarah Horn (Donna Ribalda, Stoned Guest), who played Carmen’s rival, with a lovely, even sound and a very natural stage presence. Megan Gillespie (mezzo) and Phil Meyer (bass) both turned in fun and commendable portrayals in multiple roles, and together served as a grounding force that others clearly leaned upon. Andy Leggett showed great promise and comic timing as he necessarily vacillated between tenor and falsetto as the “Bargain Counter Tenor” in The Stoned Guest. That role is no mean feat, as it was written for a very specific voice and is not mastered by many. Jennifer Weiss was funny and showed off her ebullient versatility as “the radio” in One Penny Opera. Joe Michels, playing husband Harry in One Penny, was also funny and charming as the hapless, muscle-bound lover in Amelia. Brandon Mautz, pulled from the chorus, was adorable and barked with a nice vocal core as the dog in The Stoned Guest.

But while many performances showed admirable elements, a common thread through the three shows was a general lack of musical ensemble. With their leader at the piano across the room and no consistent conducting, it became obvious that the cast was under-rehearsed and too often adrift in a sea of individual sounds, rather than basking in harmonic collaboration. It is important to avoid laying this at the feet of the performers, as their efforts were clear, and attempts at leadership from within were simply not enough. That work should all have been accomplished well before the audience starting filtering in. The aforementioned Gillespie and Meyer each made attempts at using their strength and experience to bring musical sense to One Penny, but even their big voices couldn’t cut through what should have been a fairly straightforward quartet parody. Both fared better later, with Gillespie’s quick cameo as the best friend in Amelia, and Meyer bringing his signature wit to both the titular “guest” (aka Il Commendatoreador) and then as Amelia’s unlikely savior – making him the only cast member to span all three operas.

As for the direction provided for first-time opera stager Carol Becker, attaching a hashtag of #Priorities to this trio of comic gems seems a poor attempt at dramatic unity: after all, what story isn’t about priorities? Direction throughout the evening seemed focused on cute moments rather than storytelling or depth of character, but let’s face it:  these are not works fraught with grand themes or deep thoughts. So allowing the fun to dwell in the superfluous is forgivable. But leaving the tenor out in the cold February air in a satin robe so he could climb through the real window — twice! — in Amelia Goes to the Ball, then inexplicably leaving the window wide open through the rest of the show so the audience could enjoy both the considerable chill and the roar of traffic just twenty feet away? Some major decisions showed a complete lack of common sense or understanding of how to work with singers, or even visitors. There are so many ways the window illusion and others could have been accomplished without putting voice, limb and the audience’s toes on the line.

Here’s what you need to know about IOC: 

Independent Opera Company is a small, shoestring company that runs primarily on verve and chutzpah.  It is a mixed group built of active pros, young hopefuls and committed community singers (who did very well in Amelia, by the way, with several delightful choral moments). This little company’s stated mission is to share hand-picked, often lesser-known operas at an accessible price. (How many arts presenters dare to talk about that as a primary goal?) They make no bones about the fact that they’re not a rich company, and they don’t expect a rich or experienced crowd.

So it makes sense that it would be artistic director Galina Barskaya who would gleefully attempt a feat like a triple bill. There is a fearlessness about IOC’s productions that is infectious, to say the least, and their considerable following is devoted. It also somehow makes sense that choosing their austere production style and its resulting lack of atmosphere are equally rooted in their presenting philosophy. This troupe tends to expect an audience of great imagination and ready enthusiasm, and they usually get it.  Sets are spare if not nonexistent. Staging often lacks cohesion. Lighting design is simply absent. Costumes tend to be pieced together from differing styles and periods. And the lack of atmosphere in the church venue, whether in the sanctuary or in the hall, requires more suspension of disbelief than most other theatrical experiences.

And yet, everyone seems to have a great time, and we must give big credit for that. The focus is placed firmly on a genuine love for the repertoire. Casts usually feature a few rising stars who participate in order to nail down their specific roles. The maestra sits at the piano for each performance, valiantly playing the role of “orchestra” with her beautiful technique and effortless musicality.

While that focus and supportive vision are admirable, the results have often been frustrating for observers who are also professionals in the field. It seems that it would be so easy to do a little more to create a mood. A handful of flats would cover up the bank of large windows that become the back wall of the “stage”, but give a clear and distracting view of the street traffic outside. The few furniture pieces, small and spindly and often rocking back and forth as the cast is put through their paces, are so packed with props that it becomes hard to listen to the soprano when it seems certain that a vase is about to crash to the floor. Small upgrades would make such a difference to the overall production quality, and would elevate both show and art form for those who attend IOC to test the waters of operatic experience.

This last issue is why I’m waffling, quibbling, and so drastically pushing the envelope on this blog’s stated goal of “friendly coverage”.  While we applaud the continued efforts of small companies like IOC, it is imperative, regardless of budget, that the show be well-prepared.  Sets can be faked, and marketing can be sloppy. Typos and omissions from the program can be forgiven.  But when affordable tickets are the primary focus, it is highly likely that every single performance will include a good-sized clump of attendees who have never seen opera before, and are just trying it out. If it’s not good, if it doesn’t manage to transport them, or if it just seems haphazard and slapped together in general, the opera community will probably lose them.  They’ll cross “see opera” off their bucket lists and head back to jazz, symphony, Zeppelin or Bieber, lickety-split. We’ll never see them again, and the field’s performers and masterworks will lose more of their already dwindling audience.

The bottom line:  there are good things here, and we should applaud the intentions and many of the efforts of IOC and other community-based orgs of its kind.  But the product needs to be better. For everyone’s sake.

Photos by Aaron Baltzdorf, courtesy of Independent Opera Company

1 thought on “Three operas, a courageous presenter, and the importance of illusion: Independent Opera Company’s triple bill”

  1. This review has been edited in response to two pertinent points from Galina Barskaya, IOC’s artistic director: First, our original version stated that there was no bio in the program for composer Dale Jergenson, and this was simply my error. While I did look more than once for this piece of information, I simply missed it in the flow of text, and for that I sincerely apologize. In response, that sentence has simply been edited out.

    Second, the company apparently DID prepare coverings for the windows behind the staging area, and they were somehow misplaced just before the production, missing from the storage area where they should have been. These things happen, of course, and no company should be held accountable for such a circumstance that is truly beyond control. I am not aware of any announcement to this effect, and hope I didn’t simply miss it. That knowledge might have been helpful, but a little distraction isn’t the end of the world.

    This review has been prepared with a great deal of thought and effort, in the hope that we can all see both sides of the equation in a low-budget production. Not everyone will agree about the details, but please allow me to stress once again that I enjoyed the evening, and was impressed by the energy that cast and crew put into it. I hope all involved know that we continue to cheer on as IOC continues, and we wish them all the best.


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