United States Paola Prestini & Sxip Shirey, No One Is Forgotten: Soloists, Jeffrey Zeigler (cello) / Raquel Acevedo Klein (conductor). HERE Arts Center, National Sawdust, Brooklyn. Based on the Winter Miller play of the same name, and premiered on 24.2.2021. Available for streaming through 24.4.2021. (RP)
Co-directors – Kevin Newbury & Elliott Forrest
Creative & executive producer – Eve Gigliotti
Recording & mixing engineer – Garth MacAleavey
Director of photography & editor – Marcus Shields
Beng – Kathleen Chalfant (spoken), Eve Gigliotti (sung)
Lali – Amelia Workman (spoken), Andrea Jones-Sojola (sung)
Narrator – Shannon Sims
Radio opera seems a natural in the time of a pandemic. It’s a wonder that there haven’t been more of them. For decades, Americans were introduced to opera through the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. Radio has its plus side: the absence of the visual frees the imagination, just as reading does, to conjure up characters and settings more vividly than is possible in any another media.
No One is Forgotten, Winter Miller’s powerful play about two women held prisoner in an unknown location, is perfect for radio. Conjuring up a prison cell with a bucket for a toilet and a door through which food and water are shoved doesn’t strain one’s brain. There no action, just dialogue. If the play has an antecedent, it would be Bent, a 1979 play by Martin Sherman about two gay men who die in a Nazi concentration camp.
Lali and Beng, an aid worker and a journalist, are in a hellish state of suspended animation. They have been taken prisoner, but the outside world has no idea of where the women are or if they are even alive. Lali and Beng don’t know whether they have been forgotten or if their story is fodder for the 24/7 news machine. An extremely effective scene is of the two women musing over how long they might remember someone in their situation.
They survive by playing memory games, reminiscing and forcing each other to choose the better of two horrible fates: Ebola v. AIDS, gulag v. concentration camp, oppressor v. oppressed. Their captors are never seen. The only violence inflected on them are the verbal taunts that the two hurl at each other, which ricochet like stray bullets off the cell walls. The words are never intended to wound too deeply, however, as they need each other desperately.
Eve Gigliotti commissioned this operatic adaption of No One Is Forgotten and is its creative producer. As a singer, she has performed at the Metropolitan Opera and last year sang multiple roles in White Snake Projects’ groundbreaking digital opera Alice in the Pandemic. The libretto for No One is Forgotten was adapted by Miller from her play. Paola Prestini and Sxip Shirey wrote the score, with Shirey providing additional lyrics.
Each role is assumed by a singer and an actor. Kathleen Chalfont speaks and Gigliotti sings the role of Beng, while actor Amelia Workman and Andrea Jones-Sojola share the role of Lali. The cello is the third character in the opera: the music that Jeffrey Zeigler plays expresses emotions every bit as deep as those conveyed in song or speech.
This is 43 minutes of a work in progress. The emotional wallop is enormous, but it comes more from the actors and the cellist than the singers. Kathleen Chalfont is superb in conveying Beng’s smugness and vulnerability. It’s ground that Chalfont has previously mined, as she won an OBIE for Outstanding Performance in 1999 for her portrayal of a John Donne scholar undergoing treatment for cancer in Margaret Edson’s Wit. Amelia Workman gives a nuanced reading of Lali that reveals both her fragility and resilience.
Equally effective is the matter-of-fact, compelling narration by Shannon Sims. However, the music for Gigliotti as Beng and Andrea Jones-Sojola as Lali just doesn’t pack the same emotional punch. The composers’ style is minimalist and angular, and often quite beautiful, which works splendidly for the cello but is not as effective for the singers. Gigliotti and Jones-Sojola need music that pulses with meaning to match the power of Winter Miller’s words. That’s not yet the case.
Miller wrote No One Is Forgotten in response to stories of journalists disappearing and sometimes being killed. She had conducted an interview with David Rohde, a journalist for The New York Times, kidnapped along with two associates by members of the Taliban in November 2008; and Lynsey Addario, an award-winning American photojournalist who was captured and held hostage in Libya for six days in 2011 while on assignment for the NYT. It is a compelling interview that sheds light on the professionalism, integrity and bravery of journalists who regularly risk their lives bringing the news to us.
There is also a short video documenting the recording of the opera at National Sawdust in Brooklyn on 15 February 2021. The work was conceived as a response to the pandemic and the desire to create even in times of crisis. It’s a brilliant concept, but in the tug of war between opera and play, the latter is winning at the moment.
To listen to No One Is Forgotten, click here.