It was impressive to see composer Robert Moran and lyricist Michael John LaChiusa step up on UNC's Hill Hall auditorium stage Friday night, April 19, 2002, after a performance by UNC's Opera Workshop of their 75-minute one-act opera, From the Towers of the Moon. Moran is usually to be found at performances of his works in Munich, Milan, Seattle and Washington, often by such luminaries as opera soprano Renée Fleming or England's Royal Ballet. LaChiusa is a composer in his own right with Tony-nominated Broadway shows (The Wild Party, Parade, Marie Christine) and operas (Lovers and Friends, commissioned by Lyric Opera of Chicago). That they both seemed pleased with the performance was an indication of the students' hard work put into rehearsing this difficult work and of the vision and dedication of both Terry Rhodes for the Opera Workshop and Tonu Kalam for the UNC Chamber Orchestra.
The opera, commissioned and premiered by the Minnesota Opera in 1992, is based on an ancient Japanese legend. The Moon Goddess comes to earth, appearing as a lost young woman to a peasant couple whose child has just died. The couple adopts her and soon finds she has the power to produce gold. The Emperor hears of her magical gift and sends out his Grand Consul and Minister of War to falsely woo her and bring her to his court . When they fail, the Emperor himself tries, falling in love with her, renouncing his trickery. He asks her to be his bride but she says she must leave, reminding him and the others of their blessings. The Moon Goddess returns to her home leaving those behind to contemplate newly learned lessons of love and commitment.
Moran's music could be termed post-minimalism, influenced by Philip Glass (with whom he collaborated) and John Adams, but more melodic and varied. Much of the opera has a motor-like thrust with regular, syncopated patterns alternately spiky or bubbly.The music is not harsh or off-putting and can be quite mesmeric. Some of it does become unrelenting in its intensity, changing only in several quiet sections devoted to moon-gazing and evanescent love. The duet between the Emperor and the young woman is sweetly romantic, almost too much so, veering dangerously close to a pop/new age sound. Moran does not use obvious Asian effects or orientalism (save for a gong or vibraphone chord here and there) and yet manages to convey a timeless, mythic quality, appealing and easily assimilated.
LaChiusa's contribution was difficult to ascertain under the less-than-ideal circumstances of the venue. The 25-piece orchestra was on the floor in front of the stage but, without a pit and with the orchestration often calling for heavy brass and percussion, the players often overwhelmed the singers. Only in the softer sections could the gently poetic lyrics be heard.
The student cast, as would be expected, had a range of expertise, experience and development. Most impressive in Friday's cast (a mostly different cast was in the repeat on Saturday night) was Sarah McGann as the Moon Goddess. The roles abounds in high, long-held notes, often in great leaps, and even requires a fair amount of coloratura in the finale. McGann's bright, full voice was up to the demands, only occasionally taking on a metallic edge. Equally impressive was Carmund White as the Grand Consul, his focused, clarion tenor easily cutting through the orchestra. Daniel Hinson, as the Emperor, displayed a warm baritonal tenor, when the orchestration allowed him to be heard, pleasingly smooth and capable of some lovely mezza voce. Others in the cast (Mikey Truzy and Rachel Sutton as the peasant couple, DeMar Neal as the Minister of War and Kathy Johnson as the Emperor's Mother) had younger, less focused voices, difficult to fully judge under the circumstances. The 19-member chorus, however, sang out strongly, adding a grandeur to the proceeding at each appearance.
Tonu Kalam deserves credit for getting the orchestra through the various hurdles with his firm, energetic beat. Even under these conditions, however, he should have found ways to keep the orchestra level under the singers more. The strings were noteworthy for their yeomen's duties, especially in the many pizzicato sections. Percussionist Kathryn Pruitt was amazingly confident expediting her many tasks.
The staging by Terry Rhodes was simple, understandable and acceptable in a student opera workshop. The projection of the moon the wall was a nice touch and the choreographed movements of the chorus added interest. Having most of the cast and chorus in black, modern dress and the Moon Goddess in white added a classical simplicity. But the use of modern army fatigues for the Minister of War (and supplying rifles and dark sunglasses for his minions, plus computers and headsets for court servants) introduced an unwelcome, modern note, especially since the reference to the Emperor and his court were still intact. Also, the movements of the characters did not need to match the measured music all the time. Exits and entrances did not have to be so regulated and some stillness would have been a nice contrast.
Nonetheless, the UNC forces took on a daunting task and provided a respectable representation of the work. Seeking out new works such as this, instead of relying on earlier, familiar operatic works, gives the students (and audiences) necessary exposure to worthy compositions from our own times.