Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Cooperstown Culture (Part One): The Glimmerglass Opera Company production of Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars

The Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Nick Coccoma, to our group.

Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can never go home, and there’s a lot of truth in that. Once you’ve grown, you can’t experience home the way you did in youth. But one of the more pleasant surprises in life comes from experiencing your home in new ways, often through the eyes of first-time visitors. This revelation happened to me twice this summer when I returned to my place of origin in Cooperstown, NY – once with friends who had never been and, more recently, on my own. Cooperstown is, of course, famous as the home of baseball, the location of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. If baseball constitutes America’s de facto religion, Cooperstown is its Mecca. Each summer, some 300,000 zealots descend on this sleepy village of two-thousand residents to pay homage to their favorite ballplayers, immortalized on gold-leafed plaques in an atrium that’s got the unsettling feel of a shrine. I’m a baseball fan, but more in spite of growing up in Cooperstown than because of it. To those who live there, the baseball craze makes for an annoying sideshow suffered in what is just an ordinary place to work and raise a family.

And yet Cooperstown is special, but, as many others have come to learn, not just or even mostly because of baseball. Once an important meeting place and residence for the native Iroquois tribes, this region of central New York played an important frontier role in colonial and post-Revolutionary America. The scion of the town’s founder, James Fenimore Cooper, became America’s first novelist and made the Cooperstown area setting to many of his Leatherstocking Tales, of which The Last of the Mohicans is the most famous. In the 19th century, the county grew into the nation’s leader in hop production. It boasts great natural beauty, with the village’s quaint streets sitting at the southern shore of the nine-mile Otsego Lake, the source of the Susquehanna River. The longest river on the east coast, the Susquehanna contributes the largest amount of fresh water to the Chesapeake Bay of any single source.

The village also lays claim to a number of institutions that bring a dose of refinement to the area. During my first trip back this summer I delighted in the tastes of authentic Belgian beer and frites at the Ommegang Brewery, just outside the village, and a cocktail on the porch of the Otesaga Hotel, with its spacious view of the lake. On my second return, I indulged in the more well known Fenimore Art Museum and Glimmerglass Opera. These are the kinds of hometown gems that you don’t avail yourself of enough because, since they’re right in your backyard, you take them for granted. I was glad I did this time, as they made for a privileged week of sophisticated entertainment.

The Glimmerglass Opera House
Since its founding in 1975, the Glimmerglass has risen to international prominence in the opera world, recognized for its avant-garde productions and Young Artists program. This summer’s calendar consisted of Verdi’s Aida; the Baroque opera Armide; Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars; and The Music Man. The last production featured the return of another Cooperstown native, baritone Dwayne Croft. The chance to see a fellow son of Cooperstown onstage in a musical about a man who disrupts another small town sorely tempted me, but several people warned me away. Four years ago, the festival broke tradition and introduced a musical into its summer season, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate. It did so again last year, and the new artistic director, Francesca Zambello, has said she will continue this trend. That’s fine, except for one major issue: opera and musical theatre are two very different animals, with unique performative demands. Put simply, opera singers are not trained actors, and their constant vibrato tends to blow out showtunes like a subwoofer. A musical demands a cast of performers who can first act, and then sing (and dance). Glimmerglass throws opera stars onstage in Broadway classics and tries to pass them off as musicals, but it just doesn’t work. This limitation torpedoed last year’s Annie Get Your Gun, which featured the disastrous miscasting of Deborah Voigt as the title character  a role she was at least several decades too old, and several acting classes too short, to play. Apparently it did so again in this year’s Music Man.

And it hampered the other quasi-musical offering of the season, Weill’s Lost in the Stars, which I did see. Famous for his collaborations with Brecht, Weill blurred the distinction between opera and musical theatre, and he does so again here. Lost in the Stars, based on Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country, tells the story of a black Anglican priest in 1940s South Africa, Stephen Kumalo, who embarks on a search for his adult son, Absalom, in Johannesburg. Before they can reunite, however, Absalom, fallen in with a gang of alienated black youths, kills a white man during a robbery gone wrong. The results are tragic: arrest, trial, and execution.

Kurt Weill & Maxwell Anderson
I wanted to like this production more than I did. The story’s material  the loss of sons and the spiritual crisis it provokes in a man of God  is deeply affecting. Weill’s beautiful score and Maxwell Anderson’s lyrics channel all the emotion of those themes, and they almost carry this production on their broad shoulders. You rarely find a piece of popular entertainment that marries deep existential themes with a contemplative sensibility and beauty; Lost in the Stars, with its allusions to the King David story in the Bible, offers several moments of grace. In the second act, Kumalo learns of what Absalom has done, and he wonders in anguish about the behavior of children in the haunting, “Oh Tixo, Tixo, Help Me.” When his pain turns heavenward  “Oh God of the humble and the broken/Oh God of those who have nothing, nothing, nothing” – it’s impossible not to be moved. Nor at the close of the first act, when, in a lovely directorial moment, the dreary corrugated metal sheets that made for the set flew away and a backdrop of stars twinkled behind Kumalo for the show’s title song. The number simultaneously reveals his character and the show’s overarching theme: that we’re all stars created by God, but fallen away into a dark world. Kumalo voices a theology as sweet as the music, and then confesses his doubt: “But I’ve been walking through the night, through the day / Till my eyes get weary and my head turns grey / And sometimes it seems maybe God’s gone away / Forgetting the promise that we’ve heard him say / And we’re lost out here in the stars.” Poetic lyrics like these give the show a startling maturity.

Brandy Lynn Hawkins, Eric Owens & Makudupanyane Senaona
It helped, too, that they were sung by Eric Owens, the Artist in Residence this summer at Glimmerglass. Owens is a bass of ringing power and resonance. But he’s not an actor, and the show fails there. Kumalo’s character undergoes a radical transformation over the course of the narrative, and Owens just couldn’t communicate this arc. He made one vocal choice, a quavering moan that grew old quickly. Physically, he shuffled through the role. A good director would know how to help him out, but Tazewell Thompson doesn’t come through here. The book scenes lacked physical and vocal shape; the actors just stood and delivered. This works for opera, because all the emotion goes into the singing. But it can never work in musical theatre, where dramatic scenes deepen the songs’ impact and vice versa. The other actors fared even worse – Makudupanyane Senaoana, as Absalom, gave one of the flattest performances I’ve seen (the character’s underwritten anyway, preventing us from really caring about his fate), as did Wynn Harmon as James Jarvis, the father of Absalom’s victim. Jarvis has a reconciliation scene with Kumalo near the show’s end that’s got significant emotional potential; the sight of two fathers whose shared grief over lost sons bridges the color line is moving. But his speech turns preachy and self-consciously grandiose. A better actor would tone down those parts – Wynn inflated them.

Other than the aforementioned “Lost in the Stars,” the other bit of direction that made me sit up was the scene of Absalom’s gang in a Johannesburg saloon. The ensemble actors here added a lively sultriness to the stage, and Chrystal E. Williams relished the euphemistic “Who’ll Buy?” (The song turns a vegetable market into a metaphor for soliciting sex; “Shopping for produce will never be the same,” my companion whispered to me.) Thompson did some more interesting work with the ensemble, but this couldn’t make up for the lack of acting chops. With performers able to plumb the dialogue’s emotional depths to the same degree as the songs’, Lost in the Stars could pack a hefty punch. The final image  of Kumalo burying his face his hands as Jarvis embraces him – is sobering. But this production didn’t earn the emotional payoff it asked for.
 – Nick Coccoma is a Master of Divinity candidate at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. He holds an M.A. in philosophy from Boston College, and a B.A. in theatre from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he also taught religion at the Nativity Preparatory School, a tuition-free, Jesuit middle school serving boys from low-income families in Boston.

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