Death stings and delights in Experiments in Opera’s Five Ways to Die

United StatesUnited States Various, Five Ways to Die: Soloists, Musicians / Dmitry Glivinskiy (conductor). Experiments in Opera, HERE, New York, 29.6.2024. (RP)

Rose Hegele and Seth Gilman in ‘Serials Killers and The City’ © Hunter Canning

‘Serials Killers and The City’ – Del’Shawn Taylor (composer) / Joanie Brittingham (libretto)
‘Mischief (or Rathattan)’ – Jesse Gelaznik (composer) / Britt Hewitt (libretto)\\\\
‘Water Prayer’ – Seong Ae Kim (composer) / Marcella Murray (libretto)
‘Valhalla Valley Mall’ – Jason Cady (composer & libretto)

Stage direction – Shannon Sindelar
Sets – Efren Delgadillo
Costumes – Normandy Sherwood
Lighting – Christina Tang
Technical director – Sarah Schetter
Sound – Nathaniel Butler

Alize Francheska Rozsnyai, Rose Hegele (sopranos)
Melisa Bonetti Luna, Lisa Neher (mezzo-sopranos)
Kannan Vasudevan (tenor)
Seth Gilman (baritone)

Eileen Mack – Clarinet/Bass clarinet
James Moore – Electric guitar
Tristan Kastin-Krause – Acoustic/Electric bass
Joe Bergen – Vibraphone/Percussion
Matt Evans – Drum set

What is the difference between four breezy fashionistas who lunch or rats when it comes to murder? It seems that at least some rats have a conscience.

That’s hardly the weightiest notion posed in Five Ways to Die, the latest offering from Experiments in Opera, but it does give one pause. The women murder for sport. The homicidal rats are trying to protect themselves, friends and families from death at the hands of humans. The rodents garner some sympathy.

Five Ways to Die was created by artists in Experiments in Opera’s critically acclaimed Writers Room, a program for composers and librettists. The Writers Room challenges the precedent of single authorship and embraces a model where multiple composers and librettists create a large-scale work that embodies the spirit of an inclusive and collaborative community.

Death courses through the short, interconnected operas that comprise Five Ways to Die. There is a heavy dollop of humor, wit and irony which the titles in and of themselves indicate with references to Sex in the City and the invocation of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung in ‘Valhalla Valley Mall’. The ladies are pure fun, while the lure of an abandoned mall to escape from the present delves into more complex issues.

Del’Shawn Taylor’s ‘Serials Killers and The City’ spoofs murder mysteries with four women in wonderful, whimsical hats dining on lettuce wedges (actually cabbage, which had the plus of lasting the entire run without wilting) and dishing about the latest victim. Things get a bit nasty when one turns on her friends by lacing a charcuterie platter with poison. She is in cahoots with the waiter, who may be next on the gleeful woman’s list.

The conflict between man and nature is at the core of both Jesse Gelaznik and Britt Hewitt’s ‘Mischief (or Rathattan)’ and Seong Ae Kim and Marcella Murray’s ‘Water Prayer’. The latter is comical and the former provocative.

Rats are not a phenomenon unique to New York City, but the creation of the position of director of rodent mitigation (or ‘rat czar’) surely inspired ‘Mischief (or Rathattan)’. It is a duel between vengeful rodent technocrats and their more compassionate brethren aka ‘Sapiens Sympathizers’. A sentimental rat recalls fondly her days as a beloved pet.

A different light is cast upon humans and the environment in ‘Water Prayer’. The power of nature is cast as regenerative in contrast with the human desire to simply control and exploit. A water spirit sings of her forces being contained by dams rather than flowing freely as intended. A venerable tree asks only of the spirit to count the rings when she is felled by the combined forces of wind and water. The tree doesn’t mourn her fate, but she finds comfort that the saplings living in her shade will be able to grow and reach toward the skies.

Alize Francheska Rozsnyai in ‘Valhalla Valley Mall’ © Hunter Canning

More tears, perhaps, have been shed over the demise of the great department stores than the shopping malls that replaced them. For more than 60 years, however, the malls were the bedrock of many communities. ‘Valhalla Valley Mall’ pays homage to their passing by recalling such defunct brands as Waldenbooks as well as those still thriving, including Orange Julius and The Cheesecake Factory. It also poses a real issue for many people of where to go for a walk when the mall is gone?

Such musings are the backdrop for a rite of passage for many who left suburbia for the big city. A Brooklynite has returned to her childhood home to clean it out and put it on the market. In the process, she confronts the ghost of her mother and reality. There will be no proceeds from the sale of the house as her mother had a reverse mortgage on it. Without it, the daughter cannot afford to live in Brooklyn, or anywhere for that matter. The mall beckons to her as a long-forgotten paradise with its cornucopia of goods and memories of a carefree youth.

The operas were all scored for the same instruments – clarinet/bass clarinet, electric guitar, acoustic/electric bass, vibraphone and percussion – and there was a certain homogeneity to them in terms of sound. The instruments were amplified, as were the voices. No harm, no foul, but one wondered what details would be revealed with a different orchestration or only a piano for accompaniment.

The four composers’ styles were nothing if not eclectic. Taylor couldn’t resist quoting Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’ (‘Pray for the dead, and the dead will pray for you’) in ‘Serials Killers and The City’. Gelaznik and Kim crafted some magical, beautiful music with lighter textures and creative use of percussion. Kim also wrote particularly moving passages for bass clarinet. Cady’s catchy tunes had some in the audience swaying to his beat, but there was real drama in the music he composed for mother and daughter to sing.

This was opera, however, so voices mattered, and Experiments in Opera delivered. The focus was primarily on the four women – sopranos Rose Hegele Alize Francheska Rozsnyai and mezzo-sopranos Melisa Bonetti Luna and Lisa Neher. They delighted in the zaniness of murderous women and rats while delving into the heartfelt emotions of the other characters’ losses with equal aplomb. Rounding out the cast were tenor Kannan Vasudevan and baritone Seth Gilman, both of whom seemed game for anything.

And for those curious about the disconnect between the title and the number of works, there seems to have once been a fifth opera in the mix, ‘Family Heirloom’, with a libretto by Melisa Tien and music by Anthony Gatto. Is it a work in progress or another whodunit story?

Rick Perdian

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