How about a big standing ovation for Opera Memphis, its general director Ned Canty, its newly announced directing fellow Dennis Whitehead Darling, and the fantastic cast and crew of the Midtown Opera Festival’s 901 Showcase. They’ve collectively made something very impressive — an epic built from the tiniest gestures.
It’s hard for opera to shake its longstanding reputation for extravagance, expense, elephants, Orientalism, and required reading for English-onlies. But there’s something almost revolutionary about Canty’s evangelical zeal and dedication to access. With his 30 Days of Opera platform, Canty’s made the intimidating form familiar throughout the 901. This year’s Opera Festival turns that formula inside out with an evening of tiny (and tremendous) world premieres marrying familiarity to the form.
Employing local and locally connected writers (and some area composers too), the Opera 901 Showcase takes on family, identity, responsibility, grief, institutional racism, secret histories, and professional wrestling (yes, wrestling). Big, universal themes are explored in unmistakably local contexts, making this year’s small opera event a true festival in the best and most basic sense of the word. It’s a multicourse feast for the eyes and ears, and a community revival testing shared values and celebrating things we cherish.
Watching the Opera 901 Showcase is like cracking into a great collection of short stories. No piece is longer than 20 minutes, and each work uses the form just a little differently to extract meaning and message from isolated moments in time. Barriers to entry are low (unless you only speak French, German, and/or Italian), and even musical theater skeptics may find themselves reconsidering their positions regarding opera.
The 901 experience begins with “Formidable,” an aptly titled, gorgeously told story about two strangers on a park bench overlooking the Mississippi River. One of the women is an earthy, oversharing Memphian. The other “isn’t from around here,” having come to Memphis to dispose of her father’s ashes. With a lean and lovely score by Kamala Sankaram and words by Jerre Dye, “Formidable” leans on a few overused sentences, but lands with the raw force of a Cathedral-era Raymond Carver story, when the influential author was redefining anthology, and muscular prose. “A Small Good Thing” particularly comes to mind.
“A Pretty Little Room” jumps back in time to 1892 to tell the true crime story of Alice Mitchell, who brutally murdered Freda Ward. In order to prevent Ward, her lover, from boarding a steamboat called the Ora Lee and leaving for a new life in rural Golddust, TN, Mitchell took her father’s razor and walked across river ice to confront her runaway lover. She slashed Ward’s face and was subsequently committed to the Western State Mental Hospital in Bolivar, TN, where the pulpy and portentous “Pretty Little Room” unravels like a fever dream. It’s a nifty penny dreadful of a piece, written by Dye and scored, with all appropriate dread and dissonance, by Memphis composer Robert Patterson.
Marco Pavé’s "Welcome to Grc Lnd 2030: The Demo" plays out like a hip-hop mashup of Brecht and Camus. In this one instance Opera Memphis bent rules about cast size and opera length to stage selected scenes and choreography from a proposed full-length fable about politics, plague, and Memphis’ school-to-prison pipeline.
Technical problems on opening night made “The Demo” a bumpier ride than it might have been. And, to fit better with an evening of tightly wrapped shorts it might have been better to present a single, self-contained scene. But Pavé’s entry was still a mighty preview, overstuffed with broad comedy, blunt commentary, and arresting imagery. Hopefully we'll get to see the finished product someday.
“Moving Up in the World,” is the only piece in this selection that’s not a world premiere having been originally staged as a part of Opera Memphis’ Ghosts of Crosstown event. Loosely inspired by the life of Memphis bartender Lafayette Draper, it tells the story of an elevator operator contemplating his imperfect but improving lot in life on the night before Martin Luther King’s assassination.
Stage director Dennis Whitehead Darling is more of a surging talent than an emerging talent. His simple, nuanced staging of “Moving Up” charms audience at the top, and never lets go even when things are going down.
And now, the fireworks...
Has there ever been a wrestling heel whose gimmick was being a shitty father figure to all the babyface grapplers? If not, there should be, and "Kayfabe: A Wrasslin’ Opera" is all the proof you need. This brief, delightful rock opera is a collaboration between Dye and Memphis rocker/arranger Sam Shoup that squashes all the garishness of pro wrestling into the barely developed story of an abusive father-son relationship.
Dye’s wrestlers aren’t rooted in Memphis lore, and neither the storyline nor the characters measure up to the operatic grandeur of a good Jerry Lawler/Ric Flair feud. But honestly, that’s a tall order. Shoup’s got some experience marrying rock and opera and his giddy, gritty score hits all the electric marks.
And I cannot tell a lie: There is something very satisfying about about going to the opera to see a guy get whacked with a folding chair. That may be all you need to know.
I haven’t said much about the performers. The singing’s all lovely and professional, of course, and the music’s great. But we expect all that, right? The revelation here is the up-close acting. Sawnette Sulker and Phyllis Pancella warm hearts and break them in “Formidable.” Daniel Spiotta and Brendan Tuohy chew scenery in “Kayfabe.” Darren Stokes takes audiences for a ride in “Moving Up in the World,” and Chelsea Miller and Nikola Printz chill in “A Pretty Little Room.” Stephen Len White does great character work throughout and Pavé leaves us wanting more.
When it didn’t glitch, projected images and titles were striking and allowed scenic design to be stripped to the bare essentials. Not needing to move a lot of scenery between operas made for fluid transitions. Canty’s commentary between shows was fun, sometimes improvisational, and always informative.
The Midtown Opera Festival continues this weekend with “The Triumph of Honor,” and another performance of the Opera 901 Showcase.