This one-hour whirlwind of a chamber opera lashes Kamala Sankaram's intriguing but accessible music together with a chillingly fun futuristic-steampunk sensibility. The result is an occasionally bewildering but thoroughly rewarding piece performed by a sparkling cast in a crackerjack production.
Clever videos show alternate-world news broadcasts and commercials (like one for dirt), helping to set the tone of the world we're in, namely the New Federation of Northern States. Surprising projections and lighting effects play up the stunning costumes (by Jacci Jaye) worn by the spirited, multitasking cast – who are, in turn, aided at key moments by enthusiastic audience participation. If that was a breathless sentence, it's meant to suggest the barrelling feel of the production.
The performers all play instruments as well as sing and act their roles in the simple tale, which concerns a young diet-pill heiress (Ms. Sankaram) who dies mysteriously after discovering a shocking company secret. Was she murdered, and if so, by whom? (Or did she take her own life, unable to bear the pressure of the secret?) Urged on by the colorful Bailiff (a gloriously wound-up Jerry Miller), the audience is called upon to render judgement. It all transpires under the scary-silly gaze of a computerized magistrate, projected as a robotic head on a screen and sung with auto-tuned Mr. Roboto majesty by Eric Brenner.
Unlike most of the cast, Ms. Sankaram, in the title role, is a real opera singer. But her creamy soprano fits neatly among the impressively varied skills of her cast, whose live playing realizes the composer's innovative orchestration. With violin, cello, electric guitar, reeds, and recorded backing tracks, later joined by Ms. Sankaram's accordion, the very full sound now and then stomps over the refreshingly straightforward libretto (by Ms. Sankaram with Rob Reese). Not all the voices are very powerful. But one can usually make out the words. (Although, without subtitles, the production suffers a bit from the intelligibility issues encountered by any opera, even an English-language one like this.)