Chicago opera fans were spoiled for choice this weekend between Lyric Opera’s season opening production of Macbeth, Haymarket Opera streaming Orlando, and the genre trend of the Chicago Opera Theater Carmen.
Representing Chicago’s vibrant opera scene, Third Eye Theater Ensemble presented a double-headed operas by and about women on Saturday night at the Edge Theater in Andersonville.
Petticoats and crimps was written this year by Chicago-based songwriter and singer Elizabeth Rudolph. Written for two voices, violin and cello, this opera miniature is inspired by Lois Garner, the first American woman to earn a doctorate in mechanical engineering in 1956, and Elisabeth Woodbridge (Morris), a suffragist and one of the first women to obtain a doctorate from Yale in 1908.
Rudolph defines the words of pioneer women as a musical dialogue that spans decades. The title comes from an ironic suggestion of the name of the society Garner helped found, the Society for Women Engineers. The two women describe the obstacles and sexism they’ve faced in getting to where they are, demonstrating both how far we’ve come over the past century and how far we have yet to go.
Rudolph’s music is decidedly post-minimalist, characterized by complex rhythms and repeated figures. This mechanized style suited the subject, especially as the binary code scrolled across the screen behind the two soloists. Although contemporary, the vocal writing was changeable and allowed text clarity even when both voices sang different words simultaneously.
As usual with this company, the performances are alternated. Soprano Angela Born sang the role of Elisabeth Woodbridge on Saturday, bringing an engaging stage presence and expressive lyrical voice to the role. Lois Garner was sung by mezzo-soprano Molly Burke. A vocal star of the evening, Burke sang with a clear and colorful tone, excellent diction and musical sensibility. The two voices complemented each other well, especially when they came together to sing “We can do any” in unison at the end of the piece.
The second half of the evening brought The infinite energy of Ada Lovelace, a one-act work by Kamala Sankaram on a libretto by Rob Handel. (from Sankaram Take snakes was featured in a streaming performance by COT in February.)
The 2019 opera centers around Ada Lovelace, who is often considered the first computer programmer even though she died more than a century before computers were invented. Daughter of the poet Lord Byron, whose life has been surrounded by scandals, Lovelace must choose between going to London to help Charles Babbage develop his “engine of difference” (the precursor of the computer) or be a conscientious housewife and stick with it. his family, thus protecting them from any further dishonor.
Although Sankaram also frequently uses minimalist textures to highlight the mathematical spirit of the protagonist, his eclectic style is more difficult to pin down, with elements of blues, jazz, pop, waltz, romanticism and even baroque. infusing the score. Conductor Alexandra Enyart led the string quartet and piano through the rhythmically complex and stylistically varied score with confidence and supported the singers well through some challenging entries.
Rena Ahmed led the casting as Ada. On Saturday, it looked like the mezzo-soprano might be under the bad weather, as she transposed much of the role by an octave (judging by clips from the premiere on the composer’s website). Additionally, Ahmed sang in a musical theater-style chest voice which, while pleasant, was difficult to hear and understand when in a duet with other characters. She also seemed preoccupied with the musical and vocal demands of the role, which slightly detracted from her characterization.
Tenor Max Hosmer played William King-Noel, Ada Lovelace’s husband. Hosmer’s beautiful high tenor voice made him especially likable in his tune where he struggled with Ada’s brilliance and what was expected of a woman at the time. The bizarre tai chi-style choreography, which made frequent appearances in both operas, somewhat distracted his talent for singing in air, especially when he had to stand on one leg halfway for a high note.
Baritone Noah Gartner also played the role of enthusiastic inventor Charles Babbage. He flexed each line musically and squeezed the score off the page, a not always easy task in contemporary opera.
Soprano Katherine Bruton played fiery Harriet Beecher Stowe, who had come to London to interview Ada for her book on Lord Byron. (William refuses to let her interview Ada, which would drag his family further into the scandal.) Bruton brought a powerful soprano voice and vibrant characterization to the role. Rounding out the small cast, Matthew Peckham as the butler and Tracey Lynne Furling as the nanny, who provided moments of comedic relief.
The Edge Theater turned out to be a small but comfortable place. Although the orchestra performed from the stage, director Rose Freeman made good use of the rest of the space, enhancing the action with the tactful use of a screen projecting images of code and pixels in black. and white behind the actors. The lighting during the scene in which Babbage shows Ada his difference engine was particularly magical.
In his program note, Freeman encouraged audiences to closely scrutinize the men in the stories, writing, “I’m tired of calling women to action and power. It is not enough for men to open the doors and offer a seat at the table or allow their wives to go to work.
Ironically, despite his comments, it is the male characters of The infinite energy of Ada Lovelace who are the most sympathetic and multidimensional, at least in this production.
The Third Eye Theater Ensemble’s double program will run until October 3. thirdeyete.com
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