Dating as far back as the 17th century, women have composed many operas – but today, virtually all are unknown and underperformed – if not lost altogether. Even at the Met, only Ethel Smyth’s Der Wald (“The Forest”), has been given two poorly received performances – in 1903! – but this dubious record will be broken during the 2016-17 season, when that world renowned company will finally present another opera by a female composer, L’amour de Loin, by Kaija Saariaho. Any piece of art, of course, should not be judged by the gender of its creator, but human nature assured that it was with the greatest of interest and curiosity that Opera Theater of Pittsburgh’s world premiere of A New Kind of Fallout was received Saturday night. The work amply met and exceeded the expectations that those listening for them heard murmuring through the audience before the performance began. Its music and drama are powerfully effective, its story compelling; and it will be a disappointing surprise if the opera fails to capture the attention of larger venues. This world premiere is not the first Jonathan Eaton has presented for Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, but it is his first commission of a fully staged opera for the “SummerFest” seasons, and will most likely prove his most crowning achievement to date. Several years in the making, A New Kind of Fallout is more than deserving of the reception it received Saturday night. It is not easy to rouse an opera audience in Pittsburgh into a thunderous ovation of cheers.
The opera takes its title from a phrase coined by Rachel Carson in her testimony before the U.S. Senate in 1963, and it concisely and effectively fits the subject matter of a critical, frightening epoch in history into a little over two hours’ worth of music and drama. There is no mistaking that Gilda Lyons’ music and Tammy Ryan’s libretto make tremendous demands on the vocal and acting abilities of the cast, and last night’s rose to the occasion with more than impressive success. Using the leading female role(s) of Alice Front as the most striking example – both in her earlier life, from which the first bloom of youth is almost literally blown away, to her dying hours of half a century later – the parts require a soprano and mezzo-soprano capable of powerfully declaiming the dissonances of Richard Strauss’ Elektra and Klytaemnestra just as well as singing the melodic strains of Puccini’s Cio-Cio San and Suzuki. There are quite a few moments in the opera that are hauntingly reminiscent of both composers and their creations.
To summarize the story and setting as briefly as possible, the bulk of the action takes place in an unspecified suburb of Pittsburgh in 1962, juxtaposed over a hospice bed of the present. “The story is a personal one,” the program notes tell us. “We meet Alice Front as both a young woman and her older self. Young Alice is a contented wife and expectant mother. Her husband Jack is an advertising executive and ‘company man’ on the rise at the chemical company that manufactures a ‘miracle compound’ to eradicate pests.” Elsewhere referred to as a “Powerful Mix” and an “A-Bomb for Bugs,” the lethal chemical is DDT, and Alice, after reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, finds herself “confronted with a personal choice as she is compelled to examine her previously held ideas and relationship to her community, society, environment, and marriage.” Her husband’s interests and livelihood, of course, conflict with the young woman’s fears for the future, so he unsuccessfully tries to assure her that his company would not be producing the chemical if it posed any threat to humans or the ecology, a “new” word that the characters effectively and realistically struggle to remember. Alice and one of her friends find themselves misted with the deadly pesticide when, with no advance warning from “Better Life Chemicals,” their neighborhood is sprayed to eliminate the gypsy moth infestation that doesn’t even exist.
Alice sues her husband’s employer, but, of course, loses, and Jack is fired because of the negative publicity. He and his expectant wife try to look forward to the future with optimism, but a half century later, Alice is apparently alone and losing her battle with cancer. The older Alice is nearly always on the scene, dimly lit in a hospital bed to the far left of the stage, and the scenic arrangement and design of the work is a curious but effective depiction of her earlier life passing before her dying eyes. The opera comes to an abrupt, dramatic conclusion as the young, pregnant Alice tells her husband “It’s time!” at the same moment her later life quietly expires into the eternity of a distant future.
Those who did not hear the production Saturday night might assume that it’s gloom and doom throughout, but it’s not. A few bits of lighter relief are effectively injected by both the music and text. Jack’s “Better Living Through Chemistry” song, a recurring theme heard throughout the opera, is reprised by the ensemble in a brief moment that amused those old enough to remember TV and radio commercials of the 1960s. When the chauvinistic CEO of “Better Life Chemicals” calls Alice a housewife, she quickly retorts that she is a homemaker – “I did not marry a house – I married a man!” With few lapses, the music and libretto are in perfect harmony, and the dramatically intense are balanced against the lighter, more lyrical passages quite successfully. Comparisons are odious, but it may be said that the work resembles a Wagnerian “music-drama” much more closely than it does a Donizettti “opera.”
The singing actors were more than ready to face the daunting vocal and dramatic challenges of the evening. Lara Lynn Cottrill (pictured below, with Christopher Scott), as the young Alice, displayed an amazingly powerful soprano voice of great versatility. Whether the score demanded sonorous volume in the highest register or exquisitely lovely lyricism in the middle to low, she had them all to give in abundant quantity and beautiful quality, and seemingly with the greatest of ease.
As her aged, dying counterpart, Daphne Alderson (pictured below) produced cavernously low tones and a few flights into the upper registers with equal skill, and in a well thought-out conception of the role. It can be no easy task to sing the trying music of the part, to balance volume and phrasing, to sustain a delicate sympathy with such an integral character who is slowly but steadily fading away, but she more than succeeded. Both women provided some of the finest singing and acting that was heard and seen through the course of the production.
Christopher Scott sang, acted, and looked the part of Jack Front with a strong, impressive voice and remarkable insight into the character. His gradual realization that his career was no match for the love of his wife and unborn child was extremely touching. His appearances in the repetitions of the opera, as well as his portrayal of Olivier in Capriccio, are welcomed additions to “SummerFest” that will be looked forward to with keen interest. Glenn Ayars sang and acted the role of Arthur Begman, Jack’s employer, with an impressive voice and careful attention to not “overdoing” the arrogant and villainous aspects of the character. He and Mr. Scott were the outstanding male personages of the production.
Alice’s friends, Bette Stritch (Teresa Procter), Winnie Blocker (Katie Manukyan), and Flora Dart (Desiree Soteres), are clever additions to the ensemble, and the roles were well sung and particularly well acted. They, possibly best of all, highlighted the creativity of the costume, hair and makeup designers. In the earlier scenes, particularly, they looked the epitome of suburban “homemakers” of the early 1960s, and added a lighter touch to the production. Had all quickly rallied to Alice’s concerns, a bit of realism would have been lost. Instead, the first two gradually agree and take a firmer stance, while Flora, though sympathetic, remains timidly on the sidelines.
Their male counterparts, husbands and Jack’s fellow “company men” and drinking buddies, were in very capable hands, with Aaron Kaswen (Bob Dart), Angky Budiardjono (Ed Blocker) and Isaiah Feken (Harry Stritch) lending their effective vocal and acting skills to the success of the evening. An attempt was made to have the themes of Carson’s book embodied throughout, and occasionally “The Earth,” “Science,” and “The Word” sang in the background, but whether this was a successful innovation is difficult to determine after a single hearing of the opera. Fé Avouglan, robed in light brown, was The Earth, Emily Jensen, in a lab coat, represented Science, and Victoria Fox, dressed and coiffed as the stereotypical librarian, sang The Word. Perhaps if the text of the music they sang was enunciated in a manner that made it audibly decipherable, their presence might have been more easily understood by the uninitiated (and the writer includes himself in that classification).
The opera will be repeated on Friday evening, July 24, at 7:30 p.m., and at the 2:00 p.m. matinee on Sunday, July 26. Patronage is highly encouraged. Visit http://otsummerfest.org/ for ticket information, production details, cast information and much more.
Special thanks to the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh for two complimentary press tickets.
The production team for A New Kind of Fallout –
Music, Gilda Lyons; Libretto, Tammy Ryan; Director and Producer, Jonathan Eaton; Conductor, Robert Frankenberry; Scenic Designer, Christine Lee Won; Costume Designer, Cynthia Albert; Lighting Designer, Madeleine Steineck; Projections Designer,Chuck Beard; Hair and Makeup Designer, Karen J. Gilmer; Stage Manager, Claire Landuyt; Assistant Director, David Toro; Assistant Stage Managers, Bryan Russell andRachel Walrath.
Photography: Patti Brahim.
Performance Date: Saturday, July 18, 2015