By Michael Caruso
The 2012 season of free Pastorius Park concerts, sponsored by the Chestnut Hill Community Fund and Chestnut Hill Hospital, got underway Wednesday, June 13. The weather, which had been dreadful the day before, was delightful; the crowd was large and enthusiastic, and Sharon Katz & The Peace Train brought a touch of South Africa to Chestnut Hill via a set of songs that were both eloquent and energetic.
Backed by guitar, bass, keyboard, saxophone and drums, Katz opened the concert with a salute to Nelson Mandela, the man who almost single-handedly ended South African apartheid, with a lilting rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” The soft rock arrangement projected a delightful bounce that reminded me of the African roots of Caribbean music.
Katz possesses a lovely, expressive voice with a fully inflected vibrato and a sultry tone. “Let the Children Grow” was performed as a gentle lullaby while “Sitting on a Rocking Chair” throbbed with energy. Although the tempo of “The Little We Have We Share” was slow, there was no loss of rhythmic direction. Saxophonist Lynn Riley was particularly adept at combining her own jazzy riffs with the vocal performances. The 2012 Pastorius Park season couldn’t have gotten off to a better start.
Center City Opera Theater presented the world premiere of “Slaying the Dragon” at the Prince Music Theater Thursday, June 7. I caught the Saturday, June 9, performance and came away from it very disappointed by a work whose mounting I had been eagerly anticipating.
The score for “Slaying the Dragon” was composed by Michael Ching, using a libretto written by West Mt. Airy resident Ellen Frankel, which in turn was based on the book “Not by the Sword” of Kathryn Watterson. The narrative focuses on the departure from membership in the Klu Klux Klan of a man who initially hated all minorities to the point of threatening them with violence but who eventually comes to realize the moral bankruptcy of the organization.
The problem with “Slaying the Dragon” isn’t the concept but its realization by Frankel and Ching. Among the bevy of characters in the libretto, not a single fully developed, three-dimensional human being can be found. To describe them as stereotypical caricatures would be to insult the integrity of stereotypical caricatures.
I’m not sure that even cartoons wouldn’t be maligned by likening them to what Frankel and Ching have put up there on the operatic stage. The final redemption of any and all of the roles remains a matter of politics rather than a crucible of character because none of the characters is convincing. They mouth superficial platitudes but never offer a substantial revelation.
The greater problem with such a libretto is this: it fails to provide a composer with a viable book with which to work. And so it’s not surprising that the score is equally disappointing. Ching responded to Frankel’s poorly fleshed-out libretto by composing a score that is a cliché-ridden mish-mash of popular musical styles that has nothing to do with operatic composition.
It’s not only noisy; it’s inexpressive regarding both plot narrative and character delineation. Characters rant and rage according to each individually defined political agenda, but they don’t reveal anything human about themselves because the libretto hasn’t given them any recognizable human personalities to offer through music.
I couldn’t help comparing “Slaying the Dragon” to Nico Muhly’s “Dark Sisters,” which I had seen and heard the evening before in the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater. Both offer libretti based on controversial contemporary events: the bigotry of “Slaying the Dragon,” the cult of polygamy in “Dark Sisters.” Yet the two works couldn’t have been further apart in musical and theatrical efficacy. “Dark Sisters” is an artistic triumph while “Slaying the Dragon” is a major disappointment on all counts.
There’s no question about it; presenting new operas should be an integral part of any company’s mission. But every opera company needs to establish and maintain a high standard for both the libretto and the score. Failing to do so guarantees audiences clinging to the standard repertoire for yet another season in visceral fear of encountering something as off-putting and unrewarding as “Slaying the Dragon.”