Composer Robert Livingston Aldridge and librettist Herschel Garfein have collaborated for the last twenty years, giving us the highly acclaimed opera Elmer Gantry and the "interfaith" oratorio Parables. Earlier this summer, Aldridge spent three weeks at the Brevard Music Center as a composer-in-residence, and he returned this week along with Garfein for workshops of their opera in progress, Sister Carrie. The new work is scheduled to have its collegiate premiere in Minneapolis and its professional premiere in Milwaukee in 2016.
Preparing a brand-new opera is not a task for the fainthearted. There are no recordings for the soloists to study. The composer and librettist, who to date have completed the first act and half of the second, have heard the work performed only in snippets, with a piano reduction of the intended orchestral accompaniment, and are still tinkering with the score. The Janiec Opera Company of the Brevard Music Center assisted the creative process with three "developmental workshop" performances this week as their 2014 "Opera in a Box" offering. The venue was the Morrison Playhouse of Brevard College, an intimate "black box" theater, and the three stage co-directors chose black costumes for the soloists and chorus and even black props. Their goal was to minimize everything else in order to put the focus on the words and the music, aiding the creators in observing their work. The staging achieved its goal, and in a question-and-answer period Friday, one audience member suggested that the minimalist staging had been so effective that it should be considered for a future presentation of the opera.
Based on the sprawling novel by Theodore Dreiser, the opera compresses hundreds of pages into sketched moments illustrating the rise of Carrie, a young country girl who accepts her opportunity to be a "kept woman" in Chicago of the 1890s and eventually prospers as a star on Broadway. Over the same time period George Hurstwood, an admirer of Carrie, abandons his marriage and embezzles funds in order to be with her, then enters a downward spiral ending on skid row and suicide. Dreiser's approach was sociological and made no moral judgments, and the opera is true to that authorial decision. The structure is conservative, with choruses, recitatives, arias, and duets in the mode of a hundred years ago. The musical language is contemporary; it borrows a little from the minimalists, a lot from the neoclassicists and, when appropriate, a smidgeon from the best of Broadway musical composers (Kern, Rodgers, and Bernstein). The music is modern in harmony and has dissonant elements when appropriate to the context but is never angular.
The soloists included Scott Beasley as Hurstwood and Sarah Coit as Carrie, both showing excellent preparation and pleasing voices. Brian Michael Moore was especially strong as Charles Drouet, the second male lead. The second act duet featuring Sarah Coit and Tara Deieso reading "mash notes" was a high point, as was Coit's pivotal first act aria "Everything is Paid For." The Janiec Opera Company chorus was highly effective, with the women providing the machine sounds and stomps of a shoe factory in the first scene and the men providing a chorus of waiters in a fashionable Chicago restaurant (Act I) and later a chorus of homeless men in Times Square (near the end of Act II). Eileen Downey, who provided the piano accompaniment for the workshops and who coached the singers in their preparation, deserves special mention.
The audience heard a fifteen-minute introduction from Aldridge and Garfein, and many accepted the invitation to stay afterwards and ask questions of both the cast and the creative team. It was a stimulating afternoon for those of us in the audience, and I hope helpful in the creative preparation of what promises to become an important twenty-first century opera.
The concluding performance is July 26 at 2 p.m. For details, see the sidebar.