Archive for April, 2017

PostHeaderIcon An Imperfect American Icon

You would think that an opera by noted composer, Philip Glass, about an iconic American innovator, Walt Disney, and staged by an accomplished director of contemporary opera, Kevin Newbury, would stand a strong chance at being a success. I certainly did. But I was wrong.

Perfect American 1

Disney (center) with family and friends.

“The Perfect American” received its Chicago premiere last Saturday evening (April 22) at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park. It was Chicago Opera Theater’s final production under the leadership of Artistic Director, Andreas Mitisek, who also conducted the Glass score. Mitisek has given Chicago a mixed bag of contemporary operas during his five-year tenure. He is being succeeded as artistic director by Douglas Clayton, COT’s executive director.

This season, COT enjoyed critical acclaim with a compelling staging of the Tristan and Isolde tale, “The Love Potion” and, most recently, the sci-fi story, “The Invention of Morel”. That string of success makes this disappointment more striking.

I like my opera to be coherent. Yet, “The Perfect American’s” libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer, based on the book by Peter Stephan Junge, veers sharply between fact and fantasy. The action is set in the hospital during the last three months of Disney’s life as    he relives events and petty torments in his life. Rather than being grounded in reality, the dialogue too often seems more like Disney’s fevered dream. His outbursts are uttered with no context or connection, akin to the ramblings of a sick patient under psychotropic medication.

Disney being treated

The play does have moments of clarity and could have used many more. Rather than a perfect American, Disney is portrayed as an egomaniac who took all the credit for his studio’s painstaking work and wild success. When the animators and graphic artists try to form a union, Disney crushes the attempt and fires scores of the artistic staff. Another scene shows his racist attitude toward blacks.

The play paints him as a right-wing super-patriot, the living embodiment of the American Dream for mid-century America. But the action soon pivots back to his angry outbursts. He is visited in the hospital by other historical icons, an animatronic Abraham Lincoln and pop artist, Andy Warhol, iconic figures in their own right. But their appearances are played more for laughs than insight.

Justin Ryan delivered a convincing singing and dramatic performance as Walt Disney. The large cast of supporting actors have no distinct identity and leave little impression.  I even found Glass’ signature ostinato repetitions not particularly gripping and sounding more like recycled Glass. Newbury kept the action moving at a brisk and assured pace, perhaps hoping the endless activity would mask the scant story line.

Some reviewers expressed a more forgiving opinion so perhaps you should catch the opera’s only remaining performance this Sunday, April 30, to judge for yourself. The composer is expected to attend. For tickets, call Chicago Opera Theater at 312/704-8414 or COT.org.

 

PostHeaderIcon “Yardbird” Soars High

It’s ironic that the story of jazz  bebop pioneer, Charlie Parker, should be presented by Lyric Opera. Yet, it seems fitting in another respect. Parker, an icon of jazz’s hipster subculture and later the Beat Generation, was also a keen fan of classical music. He wanted to incorporate jazz with classical elements and recorded an album of ballads with a string section in 1949 for producer, Norman Granz.

Last week, Lyric mounted Parker’s story as a chamber opera at the Harris Theater with a highly appealing score by composer Daniel Schnyder and a compelling libretto by Bridgette A. Wimberly.  Although a learned man, he hadn’t had time to write an autobiography or little else about his life. Parker died at the age of only 34.

Charlie Parker's Yardbird

Brownlee as Parker and Angela Brown as Addie.l  Photo by Todd Rosenberg

 

Wimberly situates the opera in Birdland, the New York nightclub named in Parker’s honor. He played his final gig there on March 4th, 1955, eight days before he died. The opera imagines Parker returning to the club after his death while his body lies unidentified in New York’s Bellevue morgue. He wants to compose the masterpiece he was unable to write during his lifetime before the news of his death goes public.  Yet, people and demons from his past–particularly alcohol and heroin–keep intruding.

Prior to the performance, I had little inkling of how much Parker had suffered in his life beyond his drug addictions. The libretto gave me a fuller picture of this troubled genius’ struggles: with his two wives, the death of his young daughter, Pree, and his commitment for six months to a mental hospital in California.

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee delivered a magnificent vocal and dramatic portrayal, capturing both his genius and torment. He was supported by a cast of outstanding singers in every role, especially Addie, his mother, sung by Angela Brown and Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, his patron and lover, sung by Julie Miller. Will Liverman, as Dizzy Gillespie, Parker’s fellow bebop pioneer, is accomplished in his relatively small role. At one point, Gillespie sings, “Come on, Yard! Let’s get out of here! We still have to write that music down”. Unfortunately, those scores never got written.

I have two fairly significant caveats about the score. By having the singers deliver their lines in recitative mode, the modern wont, the score keeps the dramatic action trapped at ground level, unable to soar to the lyrical heights reached by Parker’s horn. I also found it frustrating that Brownlee kept carrying his saxophone case around throughout the opera but never once do we hear a solo by the band’s alto saxophonist to recreate a taste of Parker’s genius. There was a fine set after the performance of Parker’s music by Orbert Davis’ Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra but it seemed a little too late. Many in the audience had left by then.

Lyric Unlimited is the company’s bold initiative to expand opera’s reach into new audiences and musical arenas. “Yardbird” is the fifth in the Unlimited series and, while I haven’t seen any of the earlier ones, I’d say “Yardbird” could easily be the most successful to date. Credit must go to Lyric’s General Director and CEO, Anthony Freud, for his out-of-the-box experiment. Let’s have more!

 

 

 

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