Experimental And Eerie, The Lighthouse Explored Modern Opera's Possibilities

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© Karen Almond, Dallas Opera

Over the weekend (March 16-18), The Dallas Opera and the Dallas Theater Center collaborated for the first time to produce British composer Peter Maxwell Davies' eerie 1979 chamber opera, The Lighthouse. The collaboration between the two companies resulted in a strange yet engrossing musical and theatrical experience. Here's a few notes on the bizarre and compelling opening night production:

These Guys Might Be Crazy.

The Lighthouse is based on the true story of three isolated lighthouse-keepers who disappeared mysteriously off the coast of far-northern Scotland in 1900. The main action of the opera explores the deteriorating psyches of the men as they anxiously await a delayed supply ship. The opera lasts just over an hour with no intermission and, in that time, the three men completely lose their minds and drive each other bat-shit crazy in the process.

This "plot" is more psychologically mysterious than action-packed and therefore does not lend itself to a traditional operatic setting. That works in this instance, however, because Davies' work is decidedly NOT traditional. As a chamber opera, The Lighthouse is minimalistic in scale. Davies' composed the work for only three singers (who act in turn both as the supply-ship sailors and lighthouse-keepers) and a 12-piece orchestra.

Davies' musical language is steeped in modernist tradition and filtered through the experimental trends of the 1970s. The orchestra creates somewhat expected modernist dissonances and angular sounds using both traditional instruments in non-traditional ways and non-traditional instruments (i.e. flexatones and bones). A piano is played out of tune. A horn sounds from the back of the room. After a moment, you realize the horn is actually acting as a character and the singers respond to its wah wah waaahhh the way Charlie Brown did to his teacher. The singers themselves perform the majority of the opera in a half-sung/half-spoken manner reminiscent of the Sprechstimme style of early German modernists like Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. Davies' pitchy talking style, however, sounds like Sprechstimme in the hands of Monty Python.

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© Karen Almond, Dallas Opera
Sometimes, Crazy Works.

When an opera relies on just three singers, casting is key. At the beginning of the opera, I found the officers' awkward trios difficult to embrace. Each performer, however, delivered impressively acted and powerfully sung performances in their individual roles as lighthouse-keepers.

Tenor Andrew Bidlack made his Dallas Opera debut in the dual roles of Officer 1 and Sandy. His powerfully exuberant and technically impressive performance was spot-on as Sandy, the youngest and seemingly most innocent of the three. Blazes, sung by baritone Robert Orth, introduced the meat of the opera when his character suggested that each of the men sing a song. "Then we shall see," he sings, "who is king, who devil, and who the fool amongst us." Orth's potrayal of Blazes was creepy, provocative, and unnerving. His aria was set against American folk-inspired blue grass accompaniment with banjo and honky-tonk piano. Orth provided just the right amount of weird humor in his acting and singing and the effect was perfectly disturbing. Bass Daniel Sumegi was equally as strong an actor as singer in his role as Arthur, who bombarded his companions with terrifying religious visions.

This opera is hard to pull off. Technically, the music is so bare that any mistake by the orchestra or singers is exposed. Theatrically, the acting required is subtle and complex. The success of Friday's performance was largely due to Nicole Paiement, who conducted the orchestra skillfully and artistically, and DTC's artistic director, Kevin Moriarty, who's staging of this work marked his opera directorial debut. Moriarty's transition to this genre seemed effortless and his work at home in the Wylie Theatre space. Together, the two produced one of the most interesting hours of opera I've seen in a while.

Overheard: "That was STRANGE. But I liked it."

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