Opera on Demand: 'American as Apple Pie'

Steven Linville as Lippo Fiorentino (left) distributes ice cream to the Intimate Opera crew during 'Street Scene.'

It takes a lot of work to mount an opera, so it pays to play it safe. But a ragtag bunch of opera lovers like Intimate Opera can afford to take a few more chances, to stage what audience members ask to see, to try out new approaches.

Opera on Demand is emblematic of the company's experimental, interactive approach; it's an ongoing series of programs informed by the results of audience questionnaires. Last time around, those questionnaires showed that we, the people of Indianapolis, want to see modern opera, in English, presented on a scene-by-scene basis. And so, the Intimate Opera put together a program of scene-centered excerpts from four such 20th-century, English language operas for last weekend's engagement at IndyFringe Theatre.

On the bill were Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium (1946), about a charlatan who may be possessed or mad or both; Kurt Weill's Street Scene (1947), a collection of vignettes about New Yorkers of varying temperaments and ethnicities; Mark Adamo's Little Women (1998), a slightly mawkish distillation of the Alcott novel; and Aaron Copland's The Tender Land (1954), which came toward the end of a populist, pastoral trend in American arts and culture.

I'll leave the nitty-gritty of operatic criticism to the professional adjudicators; suffice to say that some singers had stronger, more confident voices than others, notably Meagan Searles-Todd, who excelled in the program's first half, and company co-founder Amy Hayes, who gave herself a tearful deathbed scene in Little Women.

More important, to my mind, was the program as a whole, which successfully gave a taste of all four operas, leaving at least one attendee hungry for the whole meal. Opera on Demand certainly met Intimate Opera's goal to serve both audience and performers - both by giving trained singers a chance to work in a town with few such opportunities, and by affording audiences a chance to hear operas that aren't often performed in Indianapolis.

So effectively were the operas spliced and taped together that the seams didn't really show when moving from aria to aria or act to act; enough of the story remained to figure out what was going on, and the choicest musical bits were preserved.

By the way, I'll certainly count myself among those who want to hear more modern opera in English (or other languages will work as well), so it's a pleasure to hear a favorite like Weill, who's not exactly an obscure taste, but doesn't get much play locally.

(The Indianapolis Opera has never produced Weill, for instance, though Menotti was a regular in the Indy Opera's early years - he was a popular taste in the '50s and '60s, especially on television, though he's a bit creaky now. Neither have Adamo or Copland been produced by the Indy Opera, which is a bit surprising, considering the popularity and accessibility of Little Women and the entrenchment of Copland in the canon.)

But back to the Intimate Opera to voice a couple minor quibbles. While Amanda Hopson's taped piano accompaniment served its purpose in a utilitarian way, a live accompanist (or even a small pit orchestra) might've helped singers to negotiate more complex passages - not to mention that live music tends to be more engaging than anything on tape.

And - how to put this? - I feel like the Intimate Opera is striking a bit too remedial a tone; not that the company is dumbing down the music, but between the kind of lame title for the show and a pre-show warning by a director that just because The Medium happens to be a little dark, it doesn't mean that the rest of the night won't be light and fun, one wonders if things are pitched too much toward the complete neophyte, who isn't, after all, likely to drop by the show in the first place (unless she happens to be a family member, and then she'll have to be supportive no matter what).

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