Keeping Opera Current

There’s no shortage of conventional wisdom that the arts generally, and opera specifically, must be “relevant” in order to survive. UrbanArias is a testament to this – on a basic level, we strive to appeal to new audiences by removing barriers of length and language which might impede people from embracing the art form. But we also intentionally program many works which deal with issues of today or the recent past, and which are set in our own recognizable, contemporary American world.

Our whole 2017-18 season deals with modern subjects – from a strange neurological disease in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, to cross-fostering experiments between species in Lucy, to our very current struggles with race relations in this country in Independence Eve. In each of these pieces, though, my primary attraction was to the storytelling and the score. I feel very strongly that opera is nothing without a good story. Conceptual pieces can be really cool from time to time, but I want something I can sink my teeth into, something that will move me. Independence Eve‘s invention of three “everyman” Black/White duos presents us three compelling tales of racial tension and injustice. It’s not a pandering “issue opera”, although it deals with a timely and sadly timeless issue; like good verismo, it takes three “slices of life” and shows us three interactions between a Caucasian tenor and an African-American baritone which illustrate the difficulties we’ve had as Americans recovering from the less savory parts of our history and finding common ground.

It would be easy, for instance, to write a generic indictment of white reactionary behavior during the civil rights era, but Daniel Neer’s libretto instead tells us a story – a story about a black boy, Louis, who sneaked into a store in the segregated South to catch an up-close glimpse of a baseball player he admired. He also eyed a large barrel of candy. He didn’t take anything, but the white shopkeeper sure thought he was up to no good – and threw him out so violently onto nearby railroad tracks that he landed on his head and never regained hearing in one ear.

That’s the story a grownup Louis tells us, and it’s immediately gripping. Why do people treat each other so badly? And why does skin color play such a huge role in that poor treatment? And why does the white man he tells it to automatically assume that Louis’ true intention was to steal the candy?

Another scene in the opera tells a story with even more direct relevance to our time: the story of an African-American stockbroker strip-searched in the lobby of his own condo building by police who thought he looked suspicious because he was wearing sweats. That scene, originally titled “Stop and Frisk”, is plenty current. But it’s not that currency alone that drew me to it – it’s the way the characters are drawn, the sympathy with which both the lawyer and his clueless white friend are portrayed.

Great art should make us have conversations, and there is a lot to unpack in Independence Eve. But it’s the human quality of the narrative, not just the issue, that fosters those conversations. And it’s the music, not just the situation, which moves us. Composer Sidney Boquiren is also telling us a story with the score – he augments the feelings engendered by the text in each scene. He heightens the emotional impact of the boy being thrown out of the store with the eloquent beauty of his musical phrasing, and the tender turn of melody; similarly, he magnifies our tension when the African-American stockbroker tells us what the cops did to him, through the use of driving rhythm and spiky harmony.

All of this is to say that relevance is important to convince more people that opera is meaningful to them – but that relevance has to come through good, well-crafted work. I was beguiled and moved, saddened and uplifted by this opera when I first encountered it in workshop, and I hope you will be too.

– Bob Wood

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