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It’s always exciting to witness new operatic works, particularly when they are conceived and presented by seasoned professionals. Timothy Nelson’s Songs of the Fisherman, from what I’ve been able to glean from his program bio and his eponymous website, is the composer’s first original opera – or opera-ballet, to be more precise – after an impressive string of triumphs directing opera in Europe, Canada, and the US. And while the premiere was presented on the campus of UNC Charlotte, none of the performers onstage for this “Opera-ballet for Tenor, Dancer, String Quartet, Piano and Percussion” was a student. Brian Arreola, who sang the title role, is a faculty member at the university, but he also performs widely, having portrayed Roderigo in Opera Carolina’s production of Otello in May 2010 after figuring prominently in the acclaimed Cantus vocal group for 10 years. Boasting an equally impressive résumé, Alison Mixon danced Gretchen Alterowitz’s choreography so fluidly that I assumed Mixon was the choreographer until the lights came up and I could check my program. Distinguished guest artists included pianist Yin Zheng and first violinist Wei-Wei Le, competition winners both, as well as highly-positioned musicians in the West Virginia Symphony and Charlotte Symphony, percussionist Scott Christian and violinist Kari Giles respectively. Faculty members Kirsten Swanson, viola, and Mira Frisch, cello, have also performed widely in orchestras across the Carolinas and elsewhere.
So professionalism onstage was a non-issue. In fact, I was impressed by the extra demands placed upon the musicians by Nelson and upon the actors by Alterowitz. Zheng had to negotiate multiple strums and preparations under the lid of her piano – and occasionally was obliged to thump a bass drum at her feet. Christian was given a fairly brisk workout behind a battery of percussion instruments, unsheathing a bow a few times to probe into the innards of a vibraphone. String players were not exempt from stretching instrumentally, as Swanson and Frisch shared custody of a cymbal propped on its side like a gong. That cymbal was also struck and bowed by the lower string players. Even Arreola was turned into a percussionist, outfitted with a pair of stones and a wee bell-shaped gong to strike in two of the opera’s dozen scenes. Perhaps more startling, Arreola was called upon to collaborate with Mixon on Alterowitz’s choreography, supporting and mirroring his partner frequently enough for me to be somewhat surprised to find no dance performances amid the Pinkertons and Don Josés of his bio. Altogether, Arreola totally eclipsed the impression he had made on me with his lackluster Roderigo two years ago.
As intriguing as Songs of the Fisherman was to watch and hear, the exploits of these artists couldn’t overcome the overall frustration, mystification, and tedium the performance produced. I would point emphatically at Andrew Albin, who penned the text, as the source of the work’s shortcomings were it not for one persistent question that newcomers to the piece at Anne R. Belk Theater had no answer for: “What did he write?” Without the aid of supertitles, intelligibility peeped through only intermittently with a moon here, a shoreline there, plus additional crumbs from the list of scenes when the lights came up. Nor did Nelson’s prior experience in directing operas aid the cause. Surely a seasoned artisan recognizes how poorly opera communicates in English unless supertitle crutches are assisting the locomotion. Furthermore, it’s inexcusable that Nelson – in his role as stage director – would allow the composer’s string quartet to drown out whatever the Fisherman said before “We slaked our thirst” emerged from the sonic sludge. A survey of vocal music history, from Bach onwards, also reveals a long line of composers who painstakingly taught their audiences their texts through the elegant device of repetition. That’s why I finally managed to decipher the words of the prologue – when they repeated 50 minutes later in the final scene.
Aside from a projected moon in that prologue, there were no pictorial aids to clue us in to the subjects of the Fisherman’s songs that came afterwards. A large hoop that enclosed Mixon, at the beginning of the prologue, rose into the air and remained suspended there until the piece circled to its conclusion and this plastic orb set. When Mixon wasn’t dancing during the three scenes devoted exclusively to instrumentals, I must confess to a certain amount of dereliction of duty in terms of continuing my efforts to discern the words the Fisherman was singing. My attention wandered irresistibly to Le’s ministrations at the piano, Christian’s explorations in his percussion nest, and the cymbal on its edge between the cello and the viola – far more pleasurably than my frustrated efforts at decoding the Fisherman’s unintended vocalise. It might have been far otherwise if Nelson had followed the practice that characterized the Metropolitan Opera production of Satyagraha, where projected text across the full tapestry of the set was a part of the spectacle. If we had gone beyond supertitles, certainly not a super-costly undertaking in the age of PowerPoint, our scrutiny might shift at last to Albin’s text. I can’t comment on what he wrote in its entirety, but I seriously doubt that Scene VII, starting off with “My head is a sack-full of flax in coils,” takes us anywhere I’d like to go.