Two rarely performed works at LA Opera: Highway 1, USA and The Dwarf

United StatesUnited States William Grant Still, Highway 1, USA & Alexander Zemlinsky, The Dwarf: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of LA Opera / James Conlon (conductor). Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 3.3.2024. (JRo)

LA Opera’s 2024 production of Highway 1, USA © Cory Weaver

LA Opera and its music director, James Conlon, have paired two rarely performed one-act operas: William Grant Still’s Highway 1, USA and Alexander Zemlinsky’s The Dwarf (Der Zwerg). Conlon’s mission has been to present underperformed works lost to time and circumstance, and opera goers are the beneficiaries.

Still, an African-American composer, was often overlooked because of racial prejudice, and Zemlinsky, an Austrian Jew, was hounded by the Nazis and fled Europe. On the surface, their operas are unrelated: one is a 1940s domestic drama by an American composer, the other is a German opera from 1922, based on a fairy tale by Oscar Wilde. If a title were imposed on this pairing, it might be ‘Lost Illusions’.

The main characters – Bob in the case of Highway 1 and the Dwarf in Der Zwerg – are living in a fantasy, ignorant about the truth of their circumstances. Both operas have heroes who must come to grips with the stark truth of their situations, and both plots careen towards the revelation of reality and its aftermath.

Still and his librettist, Verna Arvey (Still’s wife, a concert pianist and a journalist), created a naturalistic story of Bob, a hardworking gas station owner, and Mary, his loving wife. Bob’s mother’s dying wish was that Bob support Nate, his younger brother, through college, and the couple have sacrificed to do it. When the opera opens, Nate has graduated, but a year later the expectation that he would achieve great things is unrealized, and Nate spends his days loafing and reading. Much to Mary’s dismay, Bob continues to support him, assuming Nate will eventually find work worthy of his education. It nearly ends tragically: Nate stabs Mary when she spurns his attempts to lure her away from Bob.

The intimate drama has something in common with Arthur Miller’s realism, exploring the everyday lives of families under stress. Still’s 1930 Afro-American Symphony, with its jazz and blues inflected score, is a landmark in American music, but his operas are relatively unknown.

In this handsome production, Bob and Mary’s life is set against a quintessentially American backdrop. Movable panels and platforms suggest a kitchen and bedroom, but the most striking centerpiece is the gas station with an apartment above. The station has the poetry of an Ed Ruscha painting, and the apartment is topped by a billboard montage worthy of pop artist James Rosenquist. It is a familiar environment for an American audience, and the unfolding drama takes on a universal tone as Bob and Mary become enveloped in the financial stress of their predicament. The chorus functions like a Greek chorus and comments on the action, voicing its approval of the couple while largely condemning Nate. In a scene that she shares with her aunt, Mary’s conflict over Bob’s decision to continue funding Nate is harrowing.

Mary survives the stabbing and Bob, at last, sees the truth. They sing of their future as Nate is taken into custody. It is a poignant story of simple lives, simply told. Jazz, blues and gospel music inflect the classical score, and it put me in mind of Kurt Weil’s singspiel, Lost in the Stars.

The LAO Orchestra under Conlon conveyed both the Romanticism of the score, with its Puccini-esque lyricism, and the gospel rhythms of the chorus’s major section. In a moving performance, soprano Nicole Heaston as Mary brought shades of emotion to the character, and Norman Garrett’s attractive baritone and stage presence made him a believable Bob. Chaz’men Williams-Ali as Nate was suitably boorish (though I was sorry to see a libretto where a character reading Schopenhauer and interested in philosophy is cast as a heavy). Rounding out the solid cast was Deborah Nansteel as Aunt Lou and Alan Williams as the Sheriff.

With a majestic score that pierces the heart, plum roles for singers and a fascinating narrative, it is hard to believe that Zemlinsky’s The Dwarf is not part of the established canon. He was a highly respected conductor, composer and teacher whose students included Erich Korngold, Alban Berg, Anton Webern and Karl Weigl. His brother-in-law, Arnold Schoenberg, revered him, citing his abundant musical gifts. Fleeing Germany in 1933, he arrived in New York in 1938 but met with little success. Zemlinsky’s music grows out of late Romanticism and early-twentieth-century Modernism. The opera, like Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande, conjures up a fairy tale world, and the score shimmers with Romantic yearnings much like Mahler and Wagner.

The story of The Dwarf mirrors Zemlinsky’s real life romance with the beautiful Alma Schindler. She found him charismatic but ugly and abandoned him for Gustav Mahler. In Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Birthday of the Infanta’, inspired by Los Meninas, the famous Velasquez painting, a misshapen dwarf has never seen his reflection and falls in love with the golden-haired princess. When he finally sees himself in a mirror and realizes what he is, he dies of a broken heart. The libretto follows the lines of Wilde’s story and characters. The princess is spoiled and cruel, and the Dwarf is childlike and innocent, believing that when people laugh at him, he is simply making them happy and spreading contentment.

LA Opera’s 2024 production of The Dwarf © Cory Weaver

Director Darko Tresnjak has conjured a courtly world of pomp and circumstance, with an opulent and attractive set designed by Ralph Funicello and striking period costumes by Linda Cho. The Infanta, Donna Clara, receives her eighteenth-birthday gifts with childish glee but also with undisguised entitlement. When the Sultan’s gift arrives in a bejeweled trunk, the court is abuzz with curiosity. The lid is removed by servants and the Dwarf slowly emerges, much like a sleepy jack-in-the box, astonishing the court with his misshapen form. The princess toys with him, giggling with pleasure and giving him a white rose as a token of her love. Of course, he is merely a plaything for her, and she soon grows tired of him. The Dwarf, however, believes her and is intensely in love.

Rodrick Dixon was the consummate Dwarf. He touched one’s heart with his warm, expressive tenor, whether singing of his love for the princess or in his final agony when he comes to grips with the bitter truth of his appearance.

As the Infanta, Erica Petrocelli was believable as a pampered princess capable of pulling the wings off flies. Her radiant soprano was a match for the many colors of Dixon’s remarkable performance, and their chemistry was electric.

The cast was uniformly excellent. Emily Magee was notable as Ghita, the Infanta’s favorite maid who is charged with giving the Dwarf a mirror. Her compassion for the childlike Dwarf enhanced the tragic ending when, realizing he has been treated as a fool, he dies in despair.

The beauty and sophistication of this one-act opera is unmistakable. Conlon’s conducting of the lush score was deep and moving and, at the conclusion, the Dwarf’s death was as heart-rending as any in grand opera.

Jane Rosenberg

Featured Image: LA Opera’s 2024 production of The Dwarf © Cory Weaver

Highway 1, USA

Libretto – Verna Arvey
Director – Kaneza Schaal
Production – Christopher Myers
Sets – Amy C. Rubin & Cheyanne Williams
Costumes – Charlese Antoinette
Lighting – Pablo Santiago
Chorus director – Jeremy Frank

Mary – Nicole Heaston
Bob – Norman Garrett
Nate – Chaz’men Williams-Ali
Aunt Lou – Deborah Nansteel
Sheriff – Alan Williams

The Dwarf

Libretto – Georg C. Klaren after Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Birthday of the Infanta’
Director – Darko Tresnjak
Sets – Ralph Funicello
Costumes – Linda Cho
Lighting – David Weiner
Chorus director – Jeremy Frank
Choreography – Bill Burns

Dwarf – Rodrick Dixon
Donna Clara – Erica Petrocelli
Don Estoban – Kristinn Sigmundsson
Ghita – Emily Magee
First Maid – Kathleen O’Mara
Second Maid – Deepa Johnny
Third Maid – Sarah Saturnino
First Companion – Tiffany Townsend
Second Companion – Madeleine Lyon

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