Thursday , May 23 2024
Katherine Henly in The Extinctionist from Heartbeat Opera
Katherine Henly in 'The Extinctionist' from Heartbeat Opera (photo credit: Russ Rowland)

Opera Review: ‘The Extinctionist’ from Heartbeat Opera – Amanda Quaid, Dan Schlosberg Explore the Parenthood/Climate Change Dilemma

The opening scene of The Extinctionist from Heartbeat Opera will be all too familiar to many of us. A woman (soprano Katherine Henly, in a standout performance as both singer and actor) is in her bedroom doomscrolling social media posts about climate change-related forecasts and disasters. Known only as Woman, hers is the central character of the new one-act opera by Dan Schlosberg, with a libretto by Amanda Quaid based on her play.

The (Reluctant?) Extinctionist

Woman and her mate, Man (Philip Stoddard), have been trying to conceive a child, so far unsuccessfully. When her friend (Claire Leyden) announces with delight that she’s pregnant, jealousy and second thoughts arise in Woman in a confused tangle. Tensions mount and conflicts erupt between Woman and Man, Woman and Friend, and Woman and herself. Woman changes her mind – but why exactly? Is it, as she claims, panic about the tumultuous state of the rapidly changing, and apparently deteriorating, world? Or is there more to it?

Katherine Henly and Claire Leyden in 'The Extinctionist' from Heartbeat Opera (photo credit: Russ Rowland)
Katherine Henly and Claire Leyden in ‘The Extinctionist’ (photo credit: Russ Rowland)

Schlosberg’s percussive, sometimes arhythmic music limns an almost overwhelming sense of psychological crisis. Scenes of conflict and moments of humor help hold attention through director Shadi Ghaheri’s placidly paced production, but it’s a good thing the creators kept the dark, edgy action to just 75 minutes. An important scene in Woman’s gynecologist’s office (the Doctor, played by Eliam Ramos, is the only other character) is a good deal too long as it is.

Schlosberg enlivens the score with wordless sounds, simultaneity, and parallel lines. Woman’s frequent leaps to high notes started to seem a little arbitrary after a while since they did not always align nicely with the sense of the text. But Henly’s powerful and precise singing made the music ultimately convincing.

Angst and Aria

And that music! It’s an embodiment of extreme angst. Schlosberg built it of piano, violin and viola, aggressive percussion, and – especially in one powerful (if also a bit too long) transitional scene – monstrously processed electric guitar. It’s often disturbing. It’s often non-melodic, and often without discernible rhythm. Kudos to the musicians and singers for being able to sync words and pitches with instrumental backing that’s related psychologically but often not in any traditional musical way.

And then there are the softer scenes. One duet towards the end between Woman and Man is almost endearing, if not quite, with a softer, less angular melodic conversation. Woman’s final, quiet aria at the very end is another moment where Schlosberg’s grounding in the traditions of musics past – always evident in his inventive arrangements of classic opera scores – links his imaginative and scholarly sides.

Philip Stoddard and Katherine Henly in 'The Extinctionist'
Philip Stoddard and Katherine Henly in ‘The Extinctionist’ (photo credit: Russ Rowland)

The production uses lighting and projections pointedly to enhance without distracting from the music and action. The only distraction was the great height of the supertitles, forcing the eyes to repeatedly strain way up and then back down. I had the opportunity to read the libretto beforehand, but even so there are many times when a soprano’s sung words aren’t intelligible and you need to glance at the words.

Heartbeat Opera continues to impress and to grow into a wider range of work, from serious intensities like this one to hilarious Christmastide revues. The world premiere of The Extinctionist is part of the company’s 2024 Spring Festival, which also includes its 100-minute adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Tickets and schedule are available online. The Festival runs through April 14.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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