The New York Festival of Song’s NYFOS Next has returned to OPERA America’s National Opera Center at 330 Seventh Avenue, at 29th Street for the 2015 Festival of New Songs. Literally a short walk from the subway and Penn Station, which is very fortunate on these bitterly cold evenings, a whole world opens right off the elevator on the seventh floor. There was a very interesting costume display to see, featuring the operas where they appeared, while we were waiting to enter the space and ‘the company is sublime.’
On February 10, at the program entitled “Paul Moravec and Friends,” we were treated to an opening taste of the program to come by the orchestra consisting of Michael Barrett on piano, Jay Campbell on cello and Charles Yang on violin. Dominque McCormick treated us to an ironically short work, “The Coming of Wisdom With Time,” based on a W. B. Yeats poem set by Moravec and written for tenor Paul Sperry. McCormick’s soprano voice had the right touches and its clear beauty gave life to the words and dissonant and intentional music. Moravec then introduced the evening and the first of his friends, Gardner McFall. She gave us the story behind her poem “The Rose and the Nightingale.” We also learned she’s not fond of paraphrase, but as Moravec said, “what poet is”? Next, baritone Jonathan Estabrooks treated us to an angry Benjamin Franklin in “I Was Born on a Sunday,” from “The King’s Man,” Moravec’s opera with libretto by Terry Teachout. We learned a lot about Franklin, the three-dimensional, conflicted, thinking, human being, who had feet of clay like the rest of us. Insightful and brooding, Estabrook gave Franklin some a bite of bark.
Paola Prestini was on hand with her work “Oceanic Verses.” Amy Owens lent her soprano voice to the lyric modal machinations of the three featured pieces. Based on the story of an archaeologist’s travels to Italy, as she worked to unearth her own past along with that of civilization, it documents the marriage, widowhood, and birth of a child, for the archaeologist, in beautifully arresting ways. All are the songs of a sailor in the piece and, starting with “A la Sulfatara,” there is a Middle Eastern, perhaps Phrygian, sound, exotic in itself. “C’era una volta” is more flowing, bittersweet but with a grandeur and sweep to the open-sound that’s almost Copland-esque. Finally, “Anninnia” is a setting of a traditional lullaby that has more of an Asian, pentatonic flavor and the sweet gentleness of a favorite bedtime story. Owen’s soprano was clear and articulate in every selection as she painted the very different pictures of each song–we heard a lifetime in the span of a few moments.
“The Heart of a Soldier” is Christopher Theofanidis’ first opera and is the powerful story of Rick Rescorla, Morgan Stanley’s head of security, on one of the United States’ darkest days–9-11. There are two love stories embedded in it, Rick’s love for his wife Susan and his brotherly love for Dan Hill, his comrade in arms over decades. Rick saved the lives of nearly all of Morgan Stanley’s employees that day and Rick’s aria depicts his taking leave of his buddy Dan as he opines that they’ve been brothers in arms in every conflict that ever was, sharing a kinship and the hearts of soldiers. Shea Owen’s rich baritone was perfection as he sounded-off conflicts and the names of gods and men whose deeds brought glory and victory, and death and loss, and the deep bond of friendship that unites the men who serve.
This evening marked the New York premiere of James Primosch’s “Waltzing the Spheres,” with text by Susan Scott Thomas. Originally inspired by learning to waltz for a community theater production of “Die Fledermaus,” Bill Moyers used it as a reading over footage from 9-11. Soprano Meredith Lustig conveyed a wide array of emotion and one got the sense that every turn brings an equally wide array of thoughts.
The finale of the evening included works from an opera in progress and another from the first opera Moravec ever wrote with Terry Teachout. First we were treated to excerpts from “The Shining,” currently in progress with the libretto by Mark Campbell. Estabrooks returned initially as Jack to Lustig’s Wendy, when they are delighting in the Rockies and the distant view of the Overlook Hotel. The second scene featured Shea Owens as Hallorann, the cook, as he let Danny in on the secret power they share. The most exciting excerpt, however, was when Owens took on the role of Jack and Estabrooks, that of Jack’s father Mark. Lustig remained Wendy, and was singing a lullaby for Danny, when Jack was overtaken by a memory of his father’s abuse. Owens’ face was a study in emotion, as Estabrooks’ was a study in menace. So much angst and beautiful music all in a big story! I’m very much looking forward to whenever this premieres.
Moravec definitely saved the best for last, featuring Lustig in Leslie’s aria “What Has Become of Me?” from “The Letter,” based on Somerset Maugham’s book, with libretto Terry Teachout. This aria was tailored, Moravec says, for Patricia Racette, who also actively participated, with him and Teachout, in the creation of the work, down the suggestion of the final line “I have murdered my heart.” There is a dramatic ’40s-movie feel to the music and, considering the movies made from the story and the play, this is very appropriate. This was a magnificent ending, giving Lustig many opportunities to display the beauty and capabilities of her instrument. Moravec invited his friends, composers and librettists and singers and musicians, back to the stage and then held a meet and greet in the foyer. Thus the Festival continues!
Save the date Tuesday, February 17, when NYFOS Next is curated by Bright Sheng. Make early reservations, this intimate space fills up quickly for these events and there’s no other environment that is as warm and wonderful. Visit www.NYFOS.org/next