Review: Indianapolis Opera's 'Threepenny' 

****1/2
click to enlarge DENNIS RYAN KELLY, JR.
  • Dennis Ryan Kelly, Jr.

Now's the time, folks, to get behind the Indianapolis Opera. That is, if you're compelled, like myself, by its present direction and want to see more of the same.

More scrappy, punchy, historically-faithful-but-not-dead, expert-but-not-stuffy productions like The Threepenny Opera, playing through the weekend in a lively black-box space in the back of the Basile Opera Center.

More intelligently programmed seasons that pertain to the old guard (Puccini's Girl of the Golden West in a full-scale Clowes presentation), family audiences (a revival of Christmas favorite Amahl) - and, hopefully, a wider-based audience interested in, say, 20th-century politics or literature or theater or songs or sex (Threepenny and, next spring, Britten's Albert Herring).

More of the kind of let's-do-a-show energy that informs this Threepenny, in a seams-showing production that's in line with both the work in question and its venue. Threepenny is up-front about its structure: Characters tell us what's going to happen ahead of time, and the ending - we won't give it away - reminds us that a) we're watching a play and b) we might want to rethink our expectations for that play, especially if they tap into baser instincts.

And by extension, Threepenny is a perfect work for a space like the Basile Opera Center, without a proscenium, where you run into actors during intermission, where the props sit in plain sight on one side of the stage and the orchestra to the other. Romantic opera sure wouldn't work on this stage, but 20th-century ensemble pieces probably wouldn't work as well in a space like Clowes.

So why is this a good time to vote with your ticket for a show like Threepenny? Because Indy Opera is just out of a tough financial period and looking toward programming, with a leaner crew in the front office, for both Clowes and the Basile Opera Center.

Plenty of opera companies have closed down during the past decade; others have doubled down on one-off festivals featuring full-scale works for one or two weeks on the year, then pretty much shuttering the rest of the time.

Kudos, then, to Indy Opera for not only reassessing its finances and paying off its bills, but for finding a mix of shows that could prove sustainable in the future.

But I'm sensitive to those grumbles I heard behind me Saturday at the Basile Opera Center. "It's too hot in here!" "I just can't hear the singers." "This isn't very funny." Just a few grumbles, but the lukewarm response to a pretty excellent show suggests that, like for most of the fine arts, Indy Opera is going to need some new blood for it to make sense to do unfamiliar (if canonical) 20th-century works - let alone a collaboration with IU Opera on something like a Philip Glass opera. The kind of audiences that might find it fun to see a show in an unfamiliar setting, that's looking for a challenge.

That's where you may come in. It's tough to know if buying a ticket to the Ai Weiwei show at the IMA really made a difference in terms of showing support for politically and aesthetically engaged shows featuring extraordinarily important artists. The people who brought the show in were out the door almost before the rebar was hauled out of the exhibition space.

That's not to knock on the IMA in this context, but to say that there seems to be a lot less conflict in the Indy Opera camp, and a lot more opportunity to engage and show support. This is the Indy Opera premiere of Threepenny, which says something both about the relative conservatism of the company's programming in the past, and the amount of risk-taking that its new approach involves.

Finally, it's not like buying a ticket is an act of charity that rewards only with good vibes. This Threepenny has some striking moments, notably a chilling staging of the anti-war "Cannon Song" reminiscent, in its final chorus, of Madame Mao's pitchfork thrusting operas; and MacHeath's sequined-vest, unctuous "Ballad of Living in Style," delivered from his death-row cell.

The leads are excellent, each in his and her own way (it's almost a virtue that everyone's acting style doesn't align). Janara Kellerman is particularly funny and bumptious as a full-throated Mrs. Peachum, knocking up against Corey McKern's more naturalistic MacHeath and a convincingly crass and put-upon Robert Kerr as Mr. Peachum.

I wish Rachel Sparrow, as Polly Peachum, filled the space a little more convincingly, but a smaller-voiced approach was in keeping with the production's cabaret setting. And besides, the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, with Indy Opera artistic director James Caraher at the head, usually found the right balance against unamplified singers, though a line or two was swallowed or lost in the mix by the end of the night.

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