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Sweet Potato Kicks the Sun - Young People's Opera Review
Opera Review of Sweet Potato Kicks the Sun
Music by Augusta Read Thomas; Libretto by Leslie Dunton-Downer
Review by Anne Basinski
Gordon Ostrowski, Chair of YPO Committee
Commissioned by a consortium of opera companies led by Santa Fe Opera in association with San Francisco Opera that includes: Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Minnesota Opera, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Sarasota Opera, and Seattle Opera
Santa Fe Opera gave the premier performance on October 26, 2019.
Guest Artist – Beatboxer / Vocal artist (this role could be portrayed by any vocal performer: jazz artist, etc., or even another kind of performer: dancer or puppeteer or comedian, or poet).
Sweet Potato – Soprano
89, a Hummingbird – Baritone
Grandfather Beekeeper/Grandmother Seed Keeper/City Dweller #1 – Mezzo Soprano
Squirrel/Pigeon/Honeybee/Friendly Dog/Busy Woodpecker/Spinning Spider/City Dweller #2 – Actor
Flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussion –a very small set up (small marimba, vibraphone, chimes and small table pieces: triangle, maraca, claves, woodblock, etc.).
There is mentioned an “Option 2” for Flute, Harp and Percussion Quartet and an “Option 3” for chamber orchestra
Nimbus Music Publishing
A celebrated Guest Artist takes the stage to perform and is alarmed to find that an opera is about to start in the same space. Before the mix-up can be sorted out, the opera begins. The dismayed Guest Artist watches and reacts as the opera unfolds.
In a rooftop garden inhabited by a family of humans and other creatures, the trouble-making Sweet Potato –partly out of curiosity, but also just for the fun of it –kicks the sun out of the galaxy. NO SWEET POTATO! DON’T DO IT: shout all of the inhabitants.! SWEET POTATO! DON’T DO IT! shout all of the inhabitants.
Just as everyone is calling the sun back home, Sweet Potato causes another fiasco! Now there is little hope of the sun’s return. Meanwhile, a very special person (Guest Artist) is keenly following every detail and may step in to help.
PHOTO CREDIT TO TIRA HOWARD and the Santa Fe Opera
Sweet Potato lives in a rooftop garden with best friend 89, a hummingbird who follows rules, respects boundaries, and tries against crushing odds to keep Sweet Potato in line. They and others – Baby Honeybees, Pigeons, and Squirrel – are cared for by Grandfather Beekeeper and Grandmother Seed-Keeper. Everyone adores Sweet Potato, who enlivens their garden with kaleidoscopic curiosity and energy. But this time Sweet Potato—also known as Tater--has gone too far.
Grandfather orders 89 to accompany Sweet Potato to the summit of City Park Mountain, where he hopes the rebel grandchild will gain some wisdom. On their path into unfamiliar territory, the friends encounter fascinating critters and receive mysterious messages. They overcome obstacles with comic flair, cleverness, and courage as a fresh quest sends them beyond the mountaintop to search for the secret to the sun’s return. Along the way, Sweet Potato and 89 join forces with the special guest whose dazzling talents help them save the day.
PHOTO CREDIT TO TIRA HOWARD and the Santa Fe Opera
Back in the garden, sad news awaits. But in the end, there is also much to celebrate! Sunlight, birdsongs, and honeybee buzzes return to the rooftop at last. Yet with a surprising twist--thanks to you know who.
About the Production
Sweet Potato Kicks the Sun is a playful and creative work by Augusta Read Thomas and Leslie Dunton-Downer.
- The cast consists of a Guest Artist and 4 other adults (2 of whom play multiple roles) and a youth ensemble. Vocally the ensemble is approachable by singers from a young age, and would be great fun for them: a kaleidoscopic array of sung and sprechstimme vocal sounds is creatively blended with artists playing harmonica, ocarina, birdcall instruments. Singing, laughing, crying, whispering, chant-like passages, and overtly lyrical music braid together in a unique tapestry.
- The best audience would likely be grade-school children, though there are sophisticated elements that adults would also enjoy.
- Musically, the work is not traditionally operatic. The music imaginatively expresses and develops the action, including variable improvised elements and experimental sounds.
- 20th- and 21st-century extended techniques are needed. It is highly recommended that all adult performers already be comfortable with such. The youth ensemble portrays the bees and birds of the rooftop gardens, and seems flexible as far as number of performers. In some scenes (called ‘arcs’) they simply observe, other times they add vocal effects. They hum and buzz like bees and chatter and hoot like birds. Soloists hum, bark, shout, sing, chant, patter and whoop. All performers should be able to have eye contact – preferably all onstage together.
- Production elements can be simple – actors need something to clearly define them as a Dog, Woodpecker, Bee, etc… There are specific props and instruments asked for.
- The score is clearly formatted, for voices and ensemble and uses meticulously clear notation mostly in simple 4/4 meter at reasonable and music tempo markings. There are copious and specific instructions for each player and singer, also very specific specifications for various percussion instruments.
For flute at beginning, making atmosphere for ‘Dark Zone’: “Improvise quiet music…hushed, whispery, eerie, spooky, ethereal sounds including flutter tongue, pitch bends, wispy whistle tones, wide vibrato low notes… Do not play motives, scales, tunes. Do not play any clichés.” “You do not need to be heard as foreground of the sound…you are one layer of a sonic gambit…”
- The run time is about 70 minutes.
Important notes from the composer, Augusta Read Thomas:
“Although highly notated, precise, carefully structured, soundly proportioned, and while musicians are elegantly working from a nuanced, specific text, I like all my music to have the feeling that it is organically being self-propelled – on the spot - as if we listeners are overhearing (capturing) an un-notated, spontaneously embodied improvisation.
I want all of my works to be enacted and performed with spontaneity, alertness, naturalness and musicality. This very invitation is clearly caressed on every page of the score of SPKTS.
SPKTS is, at its core, an opera with the inner life of a captured improvisation. I am calling for ALL artists react to one another in real time, spontaneously - and not in any stylized manner - making every performance of SPKTS full of life and inner-flow — and each performance, even by the same artists, a little different from any other performance of it.
All artists remain nimble and flexible.
— Keeps it alive from the inside.
— Keeps it fresh every show.
In the opera, the Special Guest artist, beatboxes and sings. The other vocalists sing and, from time to time, develop a wide variety of vocalizations akin to beatboxing. (The score describes the Guest Artist as being any variety of vocal performer: jazz singer, etc…) As such, the opera organically unfolds a sound world where different musical traditions crisscross and are deeply integrated. I see opera as embracing diverse musical traditions, artists, and audience members.
SPKTS is, in many ways, akin to a dance work. It is not stiff, affected, pompous or a “park and bark” opera!”
“Respect for and love of nature; humans, flora, and fauna as interlinked; appreciating boundaries between self and others; challenges and joys of friendship and teamwork; honoring individual ways of being and learning; embracing community and communal values; the wisdom of the older generations; empathy and unconditional love; personal transformation and insight; nature in urban settings; opera embracing diverse musical traditions, artists, and audience members. In the opera’s world, some characters are human, such as Sweet Potato, and some are not, such as 89, a hummingbird. All characters treat one another as equal creatures.”
Setting/Scenes (designated in score as Arcs)
An opera house or any theater stage; a rooftop garden; streets; a mountaintop; a playground; and a glass jar factory cellar in a city where all creatures (humans, animals, birds, insects) live as equals and are able to speak and sing.
Two roles are gender-marked in this work: GRANDMOTHER and GRANDFATHER. All other roles are expressly written as unmarked by gender. (However, they are specified by voice. For example, Sweet Potato is sung by a soprano, whether portrayed as female, male, or other…AB)
Important Note from Librettist Leslie Dunton-Downer:
This piece was created for new voices to be heard in American opera. In that spirit, it offers an unconventional role for a guest artist to improvise rather freely, to expand our ideas about what an opera is and how it can sound. Also unusual about this opera is that its title character, Sweet Potato, is a trickster, an archaic figure found in nearly all cultures through the ages, and identified by Carl Jung as a universal human archetype.
Unlike protagonists whose actions are clearly laudable, tricksters are more akin to Bart Simpson: captivating but quite naughty, and at first glance even destructive. Drawing on a curious brand of creativity to disrupt the sacred order, the trickster can push a major reset button to clear the way for a society’s fresh start. I think of Sweet Potato as a ‘right brain’ character, and of Sweet Potato’s friend, the rule-abiding and more rational 89, as a ‘left brain’ type. Their relationship is not always smooth, but together the friends form a powerful force that brings new possibilities into their world.