An operatic take on The Halloween Tree delights at InsightALT 2020

United StatesUnited States Theo Popov, The Halloween Tree (concert version): Soloists, American Lyric Theater Chamber Orchestra, MasterVoices / Geoffrey McDonald (conductor). American Lyric Theater, Ailey Citigroup Theater, New York, 23.2.2020. (RP)

The Halloween Tree (c) American Lyric Theater

Moundshroud – Matt Boehler
Tom – Benjamin Taylor
J.J. – Conor McDonald
Kelly – Kimberly Sogioka
Lenny – Zackery Morris
Lynn – Rachel Mikol
Pipkin – Christian Sanders

Lawrence Edelson, the founder of the American Lyric Theater, is right: we need some fresh, exciting, family-friendly operas. Just how many dumbed-down, truncated productions of the classics with colorful costumes and visual tricks can children and their parents bear? (My words, not his.) The Halloween Tree may be a magic bullet – it certainly delighted the child in this baby boomer.

The Halloween Tree is currently being developed under the auspices of American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program. Already test driven in two piano-vocal workshop performances, ALT presented a fully orchestrated performance under the umbrella of InsightALT 2020 – A Festival Of New Operas In Development. Founded by Edelson in 2005, ALT supports the creation of new operas for new audiences by nurturing composers and librettists, establishing sustainable artistic collaborations and contributing new works to the repertoire.

The creative team behind this operatic adaption of Ray Bradbury’s popular novel are composer Theo Popov and the multi-talented artist – librettist, lyricist, conductor, vocalist and producer – Tony Asaro. It’s hardly the first adaptation of Bradbury’s story. The best known is the 1993 animated film version, which Bradbury not only sanctioned but also appeared in as narrator. For their opera, Popov and Asaro created a spooky, fast-paced tale of time travel as entertaining as it was educational.

The story is set in a small town by a small river and a small lake in the northern part of an unspecified state in the American Midwest. It relates the adventures of four children trying to save the life of their friend Pipkin, who has been spirited away by supernatural forces. The kids set out to rescue Pipkin and, under the sinister, duplicitous guidance of Moundshroud, discover the origins and influences of Halloween along the way.

When the children fail to accomplish their allotted tasks by midnight, Moundshroud tells them that Pipkin is now his. The children, agreeing to Moundshroud’s terms for Pipkin’s release, surrender a year from the end of each of their lives in exchange for their friend’s return. It turns out, however, that in reality Pipkin had suffered an appendicitis attack and been whisked off to the hospital.

The locales that the children visit – Ancient Egypt, Stonehenge, Notre-Dame de Paris and Mexico – inspired Popov to create a score rich in musical color and exoticism. Equal numbers of strings and woodwinds, brass, percussion and guitar made up the orchestra. The chorus serves as The Halloween Tree, mummies, druids, witches, gargoyles, mourners and skeletons. Combine all of that with vocal lines that are tuneful and fit the voice, and it’s clear that Popov and Asaro know a thing or two about opera and how to engage an audience.

Every time baritone Benjamin Taylor sang the words ‘Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud’, I shivered with delight for that meant that bass-baritone Matt Boehler would appear. Boehler was a deliciously diabolic Moundshroud, the sparkle of his resonate bass matched by the demonic gleam in his eyes. Taylor played Tom, the ringleader of the gang, or at least the one brave enough to summon Moundshroud. The baritone is a fine singer with a beautiful voice, who created the false bravery of an unlikely hero with the lightest and most effective of touches.

Like Taylor, the other five cast members became children without the aid of makeup, costumes or props. The bright-voiced soprano Rachel Mikol and Zackery Morris, a tenor with a voice of gold, had sibling rivalry down pat in their portrays of the spunky Lynn and the pouty Lenny. Conor McDonald, who sang the role of J.J., has been called ‘irresistible’ by The New York Times, and I can’t top that description: he’s got a winning combination of voice and personality. With his appealing lyric tenor and winning ways, Christian Sanders brought Pipkin, everyone’s best friend, to life.

Where would opera in New York be today without conductor Geoffrey McDonald? He shows up everywhere and, as is always the case, conducted this performance with enthusiasm and authority. The 20-member orchestra gave a committed performance, as did members of MasterVoices. In the dizzying array of sounds, perhaps the most wonderful came from the chorus singing a song when the children were transported to Mexico for Día de Muertos, the celebration when the souls of the dead awaken and return to the living world to feast, drink, dance and play music with their loved ones.

The spirit of the book is best expressed by Bradbury himself: ‘Pipkin: an assemblage of speeds, smells, textures. A cross section of all the boys who ever ran, fell, got up and ran again.’ Popov and Asaro’s The Halloween Tree hit the ground running in this performance and never stumbled. I can’t wait to see it staged.

Rick Perdian

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