Contemporary opera proves the genre is alive and well.
In recent years, opera companies in North America have faced hard times. A number of influential companies, including Opera Boston, Baltimore Opera, and the New York City Opera have all had to shut down production due to lacking financial support and waning attendance. But though contemporary operas seem to be losing support and popularity, Mount Allison University’s music department isn’t giving up on the genre. Mt. A students performed in the successful world-première of Milk Bar, a contemporary opera composed by P.E.I. resident Jim O’Leary with libretto by Steven Mayoff. The debut performance took place in Brunton auditorium on March 31 as part of the music department’s annual Opera Workshop. The opera, composed specifically for the Opera Workshop, was directed by Helen Pridmore and Paul Del Motte, with orchestra conducted by James Mark. The cast was composed entirely of Mt. A music students, with the exception of guest performer Nathan Keoughan, who played businessman Pan Krol. The comedic opera is set in a contemporary Polish milk bar in danger of being sold to a large American corporation. It tells the engrossing and amusing story of Henryk, a Polish professor (portrayed by Michael Levin) who returns to his hometown from America, and is faced with a complicated love triangle between two sisters, Monika (Kristen LeBlanc) and Gosia (Erin Taylor) who work in the struggling milk bar. Through a mixture of comedy, magical intrigue, and stunning musicality, the opera provides a covert commentary on the rise of capitalist corporations in post-communist society. The sizeable audience at the Brunton auditorium was treated to a truly commendable operatic accomplishment. O’Leary and Mayoff together created a score and script that complemented each other perfectly. Weighing the comedic with the critical, and the atonal and the tonal, the performance struck the right balance between an entertaining, yet meaningful story and a beautiful and conceptually interesting score. The music was supported by a full orchestra of Mt. A faculty and students. In a last minute change, Karin Aurell led the orchestra on the flute, filling in for absent violin parts. In many ways, the flute was more complementary to the score, as its extended techniques emphasized and supported the atonality of the pieces. It gave the whole performance a slightly eerie but completely compelling and lively quality. And although Milk Bar’s composition was impressive, it was the performers who drew out these elements to their full potential. Each cast member sang and performed to very high standards, despite the difficulty that the piece—and an interrupted rehearsal schedule—presented. “Learning [atonal music] can be extremely difficult for singers because you are required to hear unusual intervals without necessarily having the pitch in the orchestra,” said MacKenzie Stone, a graduating voice student who starred as the loveable and sympathetic Olga, the milk bar’s owner. “The faculty strike slowed down the production of the opera and we had to reschedule the show. It required some extra rehearsals and lots of individual practice, but we were able to put on the opera in the end.” Despite these challenges, the cast exceeded the expectations of many audience members with their composed, fully invested, and professional performances. Levin, a pianist at Mt. A, performed particularly well as Henryk, despite his lack of vocal experience. At times, his performance seemed stiff, but that awkwardness was appropriate for his character, who continually found himself in uncomfortable situations. LeBlanc, Taylor, and Stone were also wholly engrossing as their characters. The three women shone vocally as they competently navigated the challenging territory of atonality. The softness and full tones of their voices managed to sooth the dissonant composition, rendering the music sonically intriguing, but never uncomfortable. While each actor invariably gave strong and memorable performances, it was Phil Chevarie who stole the show. Chevarie’s character, Kacper, was a smooth, saxophone-playing narrator whose corny and well-timed quips and quirks provided the comedic crux of the performance. Chevarie seemed to be made for his character, and audience members were constantly doubled over with laughter during his scenes and interruptions. Milk Bar was an incredible accomplishment for all involved. Even though many contemporary operas may be loosing audiences, Milk Bar proved that they should—and can—have a relevant and important place in the musical world. The opera was not only a highly successful oeuvre in and of itself, but it was also a significant learning experience for the student performers. “The overall experience in performing in a brand new opera was exciting, fresh, and also scary,” said Levin. “We (the performers) didn’t know what to expect, and we couldn’t have done it without constant encouragement from Dr. Pridmore. As a composer myself, it was amazing to be able to see my passion (as a musician) come to life.”f