Composer Robert Paterson’s Mostly Modern Projects (MMP) is a crucible of musical creativity and, I now know, a smithy for opera and the opera-adjacent. Kings, Giants & Robots was a program of operatic works by Paterson, Herschel Garfein, and Victoria Bond, co-produced by Bond’s Cutting Edge Concerts. The singers and instrumentalists were members of MMP’s American Modern Ensemble.
A Puppet Gulliver
Victoria Bond’s How Gulliver Returned Home in a Manner that was Very Not Direct is an opera based on Gulliver’s Travels, still in development. With puppets, humor and high spirits, it’s intended for all ages. Bond conducted selections featuring three singers and scored for string quartet and percussion.
Soprano Ariadne Greif and tenor Glenn Seven Allen shared much of the spotlight in a few roles each. Both were in fine voice, as was baritone Jonathan Green in a Gulliver-as-narrator role. Greif and Allen delivered droll characterizations along with confident realizations of Bond’s modernist-influenced, accessible and exciting recitatives and ariosos. (Greif and Allen would return in even livelier roles later.) Helping to mobilize the action were two puppeteers operating doll-sized “bodies” the singers wore on their chests.
The scenes are clever, funny, inventive and original. A trio of Yahoos bellow nonsense in perfect synchrony. A love scene between puppet Gulliver and a full-sized woman of the Brobdingnag race of giants features extraordinary duet writing. A musical interlude from a section cleverly called “Danzibar” hews lightly to an intriguing and playful tango beat. The final selection brings together all three singers for a trio built on sweet harmonizing and beautiful counterpoint.
A Powerful World Premiere
The world premiere of King of the River by Herschel Garfein, a more conspicuously serious work, followed. The composer set the eponymous Stanley Kunitz poem for orchestra (here a small but comprehensive ensemble) and baritone soloist.
Keith Phares was stunning, surely one of the most commanding baritone voices on the scene. He seemed to really relish the material, and there is a lot to appreciate. Garfein depicts the poem’s watery imagery (the “king” is a salmon) with frothing, bubbling palaces of sound that never dissolve into chaos. The music is dense and harmonically intelligible, the musical narrative episodic but (like water) flowing and programmatic in interesting ways. And not only watery ones – for example, with musical suspense on the phrase “at the threshold.”
There’s flowing interplay between voice and orchestra throughout. Unexpected rhythms and gestures in the orchestral score must make it a challenge for a singer. Phares sailed through in total control.
King of the River is a marvelous piece of descriptive modernism. Garfein told us during a brief discussion that he has been particularly interested in the sound of a solo voice with orchestra. He has made a tremendous contribution to the relatively sparse repertoire for this configuration. Phares, conductor Geoffrey McDonald and the musicians of the American Modern Ensemble gave it a smashing premiere.
The Companion is a self-contained one-act opera by Robert Paterson that’s also the first part of a triptych of chamber operas. Collectively titled Three Way, they explore issues of connection and sexuality. When I spoke with the composer about this as we premiered a video excerpt from The Companion in 2017, he told me why he had been “bitten by the opera bug”:
I love writing operas. And the reason is, unlike orchestra pieces where you write the piece, the players learn it, the conductor conducts it and then, your know, it happens, with opera there’s all these collaborators, the stage director and everybody else, the singers have their way they act the parts. And seeing that all come together [at the Nashville premiere] was one of the most thrilling things I’ve ever experienced, because you just get the sense that it’s this giant team effort.
The Companion is a futuristic tale of a woman, Maya, with an android boyfriend called Joe who’s just too perfect – always happy, overbearingly solicitous. Wanting more, she asks technician Dax to upgrade Joe’s software. Reprogrammed for “maximum realism,” Joe becomes an inconsiderate jerk.
Directed by John de los Santos with a smart libretto by David Cote, Allen’s uproarious portrayal of Joe established him as a singer with exceptional acting skills. Grief’s naturalistic performance as Maya did the same, with baritone Robert Welsey Mason grounding the action as Dax and revealing unexpected depth to the character.
Conductor McDonald’s chamber ensemble appeared to find the proceedings as funny as the audience did. That didn’t mar their sharp performance of the sophisticated, melodic score, which features Paterson’s beloved marimba (he’s a marimbist himself) and lovely orchestral writing, particularly in the winds. Subtle touches made me smile, like a little repeated phrase that at first sounded uniform but was actually alternating between French horn and bassoon. But it’s the overall spirit of the piece that makes this one-act opera a joy.