Long Leaf Opera: Justine Chen, Local Teens - Deliver!
by Ken Hoover
June 11, 2008 Carrboro, NC: It is often heard from the history and political pundits that the youth of today are the future. If they are right, then the event of this evening at the ArtsCenter was a promise of outstanding hope for the musical and theatrical future of America and the world. Three, Two, One - Bang!, a short teen-lingo opera by Justine Chen, was performed by teenagers from all around the Triangle who responded to an open call for auditions and worked very hard to put together the staging, lighting, costuming, acting, and singing necessary for a show that was both charming and provocative.
The very talented Chen, a resident of New York and Long Leaf Opera composer-in- residence, is very active as a teacher, performer (violinist), and composer. She was commissioned by LLO to compose a half-hour opera in a format accessible to teens both as performers and as audience. She chose to adapt, loosely, Shakespeare's Macbeth, which she first read in middle school. The action takes place at "Birnam Wood Theme Park." A barker touts great prizes to be awarded the winning raffle ticket holder. Visitors enjoy the theme park as Macbeth with his casual sidekick, Banquo, engage with a central attraction: the "Fabulous Clairvoyant Sisters Three." The Witches – oops, Sisters, I mean – show Macbeth a series of hallucinations involving his future, all of which he denies could ever happen. The final vision seems to assure Macbeth that none of the dire predictions will come true. The barker announces the winning ticket number (which Macbeth holds), 321 and bang, the series of whole series of horrifying events is set into motion.
The opera, more of a singspiel with about half the script spoken and half of it sung, was a joint venture by Long Leaf Opera and The ArtsCenter. The cast (in order of appearance) included the Announcer (Barker), played by Markos Simopoulos, a student at Woods Charter School. A non-singing role, his big and persuasive voice would surely sell raffle tickets in abundance. The "Fabulous Clairvoyant Sisters Three" were clearly the hit element of the opera. Their singing, in dialogue or in rich trio harmony, and their spoken dialogue and acting were just about flawless, without any awkward self-consciousness – a joy to hear and to see. In this performance they were Nora Burgard, from Chapel Hill High School, Suzannah Ziko, graduating from Enloe High School in Raleigh, and Katie Koromek, a rising senior and a member of the Honors Choir at Enloe. (Alternate performers sang these parts on Thursday.)
Patrick Cyzewski, a sophomore at Enloe, played Banquo, a mostly spoken part, with cool affect and a wonderful sense of comedic timing. Joseph Bishop, a freshman at Carolina Friends School, sang with a remarkably rich baritone voice for one so young and so small. With proper training and development you may hear much more of him in the future. Servant 1 was Lexie Miller, a junior at Cardinal Gibbons High School. Servant 2 was Liliana Pagano. The very pregnant Lady Macbeth was sung by Camille Johnson, a student at East Chapel Hill High School. She sang with convincing angst, and though her high notes were a little weak, they will fill out with maturity and experience. MacDuff was sung by Andrew Way, a rising junior at Enloe. He sang with panache and confidence evincing his considerable experience and passion for the musical stage.
Space will not allow listing the names of all who deserve credit including the production staff and the fine orchestra – most, if not all, local high school students. In the final analysis, Chen's approach to teen opera is both practical and entrancing. She was blessed by a very talented and well-prepared cast and crew and is due – along with Long Leaf Opera and ArtsCenter – much praise for this achievement.
The audience was further treated to two scenes from Chen's new opera Jeanne, based on the always intriguing life of Joan of Arc. Both the libretto and the music are by Chen. In scene 2 from the opera, Krista Wilhelmsen sang Joan and Scott MacLeod sang the Confessor. In Scene 3, a dialogue between Charles Dauphin and Queen Isabeau featured John E. Williams and Jennifer Sieger. Chen's music for this opera is engaging, with a hint of impressionism, rich harmonies, and a well disciplined sense melodic direction. We heard enough to anticipate the pleasure of experiencing the entire dramatic work in full production.
Long Leaf Opera is launching its phenomenal 10th anniversary festival of opera sung in English including new works and established classics. Through June 29th the opportunities for drama, magic, love, despair, mysticism and much more are abundant. Check out the schedule here (embed: ) or at Long Leaf Opera.