For 10 years, Lone Star Lyric Festival has presented an impressive number of world premieres, with this anniversary year being no different thanks to two provoking new chamber operas by Michael Remson and Omari Tau.
Because of a power outage on Saturday night, I saw both shows back-to-back on Sunday at the Midtown Arts and Theatre Center Houston (MATCH). This year’s lineup, running through June 25, offers two sides to every show: a jolly cabaret opener and a serious new work.
First up, Remson’s chamber opera Three Skeleton Key probes degrees of escape. Based on the 1937 short story by Georges Toudouze, the opera follows three men in a lighthouse who are viciously trapped by a rat hoard. Musically, Remson establishes mystery, fear and profound uncertainty with a reoccurring motif of creeping half steps that slide down only to suddenly leap stark octaves. Having an all-male cast brings a distinctly dark timbre to these ensemble numbers.
Baritone Lee Gregory, playing the anchor role of John, has a robust instrument and stage eloquence that easily filled the MATCH space. Alongside him, bass-baritone Brian Shircliffe and tenor John Weinel held their own as desperation spread over the scene. Apart from a few unsynchronized phrase cut-offs, the three displayed theatrical camaraderie. Costumes, by Alicia Chew, came in shades of khaki that popped with red cravats and kerchiefs against an inky backdrop. Mirroring the three-person opera, a piano, violin and cello navigated Remson’s thoughtful score with eerie care. A duet between violinist Andrés González and cellist Patrick Moore near the end was sublimely haunting.
The half-hour chamber opera is framed as a radio show, introduced by an announcer (Jeffrey S. Lane) and preceded in the first half by a faux radio comedy show that Kelli Estes, soprano and LSL artistic director, opened by announcing: “It’s 1945 on a Saturday night” before busting into a rendition of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.” Joining her, baritone Jeremy M. Wood and mezzo-soprano Sarah Brindley each took their turn with songs like Harold Arlen’s “Blues in the Night.” Peppered in between were comedic jingles for Blue Bell Ice Cream and Saint Arnold beer.
In their second appearance of the day (this time Estes set the scene for “1920s at the Algonquin”), the cabaret opener made less sense with the following chamber opera, Night at the Algonquin. Songs ranged from Gershwin’s 1937 hit “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” to Cab Calloway’s 1931 “Minnie the Moocher.” A refreshing addition from earlier in the day was trumpet player Henry Espinoza who crooned his way through the set.
Drawn from Dorothy Parker’s biography, Night at the Algonquin is an original kind of chamber opera. Soprano Allison Greene, in the title role, sang amicably. Similarly, Laura Coale (as Edna Ferber) and John Weinel (doubling as Alexander Woollcott and Frank Crowninshield) delivered a steadfast performance. Happily returning for the second time that day, Lee Gregory (as Robert Benchley) continued to prove that his voice has a lot of color to play with.
Like Remson, Tau wrote both the music and libretto and shows a keen instinct for both—which is lucky, given Parker’s sharp literary reputation. Lines like “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy” fall neatly into the accompanying rhythm of the light-fingered pianist Rob Hunt and the flaxen croon from Espinoza’s trumpet.
But what makes Tau’s work something worth hearing are a few unexpected, thrilling oddities. The polyphonic unaccompanied motet, for example (a remnant from the Middle Ages) and the tri-tone focused harmony that acts as the foundation for any barbershop quartet makes for a strange collaboration that I wouldn’t file under “jazz opera” as the program labels it. Perhaps the most striking aria, pivoting in the narrative from Parker’s abortion to her suicide attempt, was punctuated by a walking bass line (performed by the resolute Lex Valk).
Since its first festival in 2006, the organization has presented 10 world premieres. Its 2011 season (which also included work by Tau and Remson) exclusively featured work that LSL commissioned. Cabaret hours aside, LSL is a company to watch for the original and the unexpected.