Review: World Premiere of Roscoe presented at the Seagle Music Colony
American opera came with the European settlers and was a transplanted art form until the beginning of the 20th Century. It was then that a new art emerged that could be called distinctly American. That was 100 years ago, so one could really say that American opera is entering its second century. Today, Opera’s cousin Musical Theatre draws more audiences, has a larger budget and better production values in the U.S. so it is no wonder that opera would like to match that relative success in its second century. My summer has been, quite accidentally, an examination of American opera during which I have asked where is American opera heading in this century? Is opera a relevant creative force able to tell and sound like an American story?
There are a few items on my check list for whether an opera is creatively interesting and relevant. First, it has to have a good story-and that story should be uniquely American. Second it should incorporate the sounds of American music and dance. Third it should involve young American talent: Americans telling our story. Disclaimer and perhaps a buzz kill for the patriots: I am Canadian but I know a good American opera when I see one.
I saw an opera last weekend that I think should be considered the model of what a good American opera is in the 21st century in the Adirondacks of upstate New York at the Seagle Music Colony. Seagle is a venerable festival and training program for young singers tucked in the mountains and woods with the rustic feel of a visit to your friend's cottage. Artistic Director Darren K. Woods assembles a cast of 32 singers to perform 4 shows over a summer season that spans July and August. This season offered something for everyone, including the world premiere of a new American opera entitled Roscoe, by composer Evan Mack and librettist Joshua McGuire. This particular performance was the Saturday night finale of a four show run and a good word had obviously spread as this performance was packed to the rafters (literally) with audience members.
"In Roscoe, McGuire expertly took on the added challenge of working with an author who is still very much alive and interested in his art."
Good American opera should have good story and here Roscoe delivers. Roscoe is an opera adapted from a novel by the same name by Albany writer and Pulitzer Prize winning author William Kennedy. Roscoe Conway is a political operative in the Albany democratic party and in 1945 is 55 years old and wants out of politics. The voices of his past, his father Felix and his recently deceased best friend Elisha, are constantly with him as he tries to sort out a messy child custody battle between his ex-wife Pamela and her sister and Elisha’s widow Veronica, all the while trying to fix the mayoral race for Elisha’s young and up and coming son Alex. We come to find that the now 12 year old child Gilby is the biological son of Alex and Roscoe’s ex-wife, a scandal that could end Alex’s political career as mayor. This all plays as backdrop to what is essentially a love story between Veronica and Roscoe, having been teen lovers some thirty years ago. Now in middle age their love has become a simmering lust for each other. McGuire was more than up to the challenges of this plot, having adapted the novel Secret of Luca is his first collaboration with Mack. In Roscoe, McGuire expertly took on the added challenge of working with an author who is still very much alive and interested in his art. There was an element to McGuire’s challenge here that was not an unusual for a librettist. How to take a complicated novel and boil it down to its essential pieces so it fits into a comfy libretto, so that it sings, and makes sense on stage. What he did so well was his ability to capture Kennedy’s unique style of making the past, mix with the present. For example Roscoe finds his friend Elisha dead, but Elisha immediate starts talking to him. Also Kennedy has a penchant for prose, sometimes writing nonsense words or changing the rhythm of his writing.
"It was a fantastic musical display that was led by Conductor Tony Kostecki and Music Director Jennifer McGuire. Mack’s writing and her musical support and good ear guided the singers and moved the story along."
Good American opera should be well composed and use not only the traditional models of aria and recitative but search out new ways of expression in song and even dialogue. Evan Mack’s composition shows great skill in assembling sounds and writing for singers. He also displays a natural sense in the tradition of Mozart, always knowing where the actor is on stage, staging the opera from the score. He never falls in that the pitfall of writing “too many notes” (as Emperor Joseph famously and wrongly accused Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro of harboring) leaving the actor hanging it a time-hole-of-acting-nightmare situation. The opera is full of the sounds of the first half of the 20th century and uses arias, but also has stand alone songs, duets and ensemble pieces. This variety in sound and structure helped to orient the audience, essentially helping us to find where they were in Roscoe’s memory from the late 19th century patter of Gilbert and Sullivan to the dance halls of the roaring twenties or the post-war big band era. Mack’s score also featured jazz and skat, and although his day job is as academic, he doesn’t write in the overly complicated style of today’s composer academics. His thoughts are always on melody and if he likes it he writes it, and in all cases we the audience like it too and actually appreciate a composer who allows us to enjoy his work. I would be remiss not to mention that Mack’s Roscoe’s is scored for two pianos and percussion. This “all percussion” pit provided a cornucopia of sound and was meticulously fashioned by the composer who, rather than meeting outlines and dividing them between pianos, actually composed separate piano parts for the 1st and 2nd pianos. It was a fantastic musical display that was led by Conductor Tony Kostecki and Music Director Jennifer McGuire. Mack’s writing and her musical support and good ear guided the singers and moved the story along.
"The aim of his lust, Veronica was played by Lauren Cook. Cook is the kind of actress who, when she is on stage, you know it."
Good American opera should be staged honestly and sung well. Richard Kagey’s staging was quite honestly brilliant. The stage incorporated a turntable and a backlit screen. The turntable served to smoothly change the scene, or act as a metaphor for the passage of time and characters that run through Roscoe’s life. The screen helped the audience stay in the story, setting the scene and flashing up the odd newspaper headline. The young actors always knew where to go and were rarely caught in awkward situations. This seamless staging was combined with some very good, artistic and always important with young singers, healthy singing. On this night Roscoe was played by Scott Purcell. Purcell has a handsome, true and full baritone voice that warmed into itself as the evening rolled along. Despite his smaller stature which was obvious next to some other north of 6 feet cast members, Purcell was able to capture the nuances of Roscoe’s character, from confident power player, to lusty pursuer. The aim of his lust, Veronica was played by Lauren Cook. Cook is the kind of actress who, when she is on stage, you know it. All eyes are on her, and she achieves this not with tricks, flips, mugging or winks but with a presence that quietly states “I am here and you are going to watch me”. It was a commanding performance vocally and she showed that maturity and command of character that is sure to please audiences well into this century. Other noteable up and comers was the young tenor Michael Vlach who played Alex Fitzgibbon. This young tenor showed he had all the elements of a fine singer and actor and the ability to move his 6’4” frame around the stage. Texan bass Johnny Salvesen played a cool, refined and sometimes quirky Elisha. Just as refined was his bass voice which had an excellent command of the entire vocal range and dynamic.
My conclusion is that this is a major and mature triumph for Mack and McGuire and with continued refinement this could be a lasting and popular American opera. It was a meticulous production worthy of the finest of professional stages, all played in the woods (no pun intended Mr. Woods) where there is no cell service and the backstage is basically a screened porch (plans for a new performing arts center are in the works, there are no plans for a cell tower). So where are we in the second century of American opera? I think if companies and festivals hire composers like Mack and McGuire who have the unique ability to tell an American story through words and sounds and ALSO have the ability to treat every opportunity as one to adapt and change their score, all with an ear to the skill of American singers, then opera has a promising future. This was American opera on display and at its finest.
Dr. Anthony P. Radford, Review Editor, National Opera Association
Associate Professor of Voice
California State University, Fresno
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Opera Association, its Board, Officers or Membership.
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