Opera goes to the ‘Dog’

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Dam­jan Rakon­jac

L.A. Opera is push­ing into new ter­ri­tory. By join­ing forces with the Next On Grand fes­ti­val of con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can mu­sic, it is en­gag­ing with the fu­ture of Amer­i­can opera. Its con­tri­bu­tion is “Dog Days,” a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween com­poser David T. Lit­tle and li­bret­tist Royce Vavrek, which runs at REDCAT through Mon­day.

Lit­tle is an in­ven­tive and pro­lific young opera com­poser. His up­com­ing projects in­clude a work based on the last hours of JFK’s life for Fort Worth Opera.

Based on a short story by Judy Bud­nitz, “Dog Days” is set in a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic yet rec­og­niz­ably Amer­i­can home, a tale of a fam­ily de­voured by iso­la­tion and poverty. Lisa, the young daugh-

ter, strikes up a friend­ship with a des­ti­tute man who acts like a dog. As hunger pre­cip­i­tates the fam­ily’s de­scent into mad­ness, Lisa’s fa­ther is driven to shoot the dog-man for food.

Lit­tle’s mu­sic, con­veyed by the warm pre­ci­sion of the en­sem­ble Newspeak un­der the mu­si­cal di­rec­tion of Alan Pierson, makes the fam­ily’s grad­ual demise feel vis­ceral. The back­ground is one of har­monic rep­e­ti­tion, tinged with shift­ing tex­tures and tim­bres. It is a toy-box aes­thetic, familiar from other con­tem­po­rary opera com­posers, no­tably David Lang and Nico Muhly.

How­ever, Lit­tle adds a sig­na­ture in­gre­di­ent: heavy metal.

Out­bursts of dis­torted gui­tar and bass drum be­come more fre­quent, and more vi­o­lent, as the story pro­gresses. This heavy-metal mo­tif ap­pears at key mo­ments, re­flect­ing the fam­ily’s own down­ward spi­ral. It comes to a head in the epi­logue, with a thun­der­ous fi­nal chord, a long held drone that be­gins as a plain­tive dirge for the mother but mag­ni­fies into the fam­ily’s death-- shud­der.

Vavrek’s li­bretto har­nesses the plot’s mor­bid in­ten­sity by fill­ing in de­tails. By couch­ing the fam­ily’s strug­gle into stan­dard op­er­atic forms — arias, en­sem­ble num­bers — Vavrek gives con­vinc­ing shape to the twohour-plus-long work, mak­ing a virtue of the need to elab­o­rate.

We get to know the fam­ily first over din­ner as they sing grace over paltry scraps of army ra­tions. Lit­tle is good at mak­ing mu­si­cal de­tails de­pict in­ter­nal states. The fam­ily be­gins each hymn verse to­gether, but ends it on slightly dif­fer­ent ac­cents — a sign of frayed re­la­tions and dishar­mony.

The opera fea­tures some painfully re­veal­ing con­fron- tations, like the daugh­ter’s delu­sional aria in Act II, in which she praises her starved body be­cause it is thin. The mo­ment is staged to full ef­fect, with the girl singing in­tently into a van­ity mir­ror, her face am­pli­fied on a big screen above the stage. With fever­ish de­liv­ery, so­prano Lau­ren Wor­sham makes the mad­ness pal­pa­ble.

So much ab­ject suf­fer­ing is hard to bear, as the fa­ther’s con­stant shout­ing makes ap­par­ent, brought home by the rest­less in­ten­sity of bari­tone James Bo­bick. There is lit­tle comic re­lief in the opera, aside from oc­ca­sional pubescent an­tics from the pair of broth­ers, well char­ac­ter­ized by tenors Michael Mar­cotte and Peter Tantsits. The mother is haunt­ingly played by so­prano Marnie Breck­en­ridge.

Nev­er­the­less, Lit­tle and Vavrek man­age to make the bleak­ness work dramatically, in part by ratch­et­ing up the in­ten­sity over the opera’s en­tire span. By slow de­grees, the fam­ily is dragged down to the point of star­va­tion, de­picted with lurid de­tail in the grue­some epi­logue.

cal­en­dar@la­times.com

Greg Grudt Mathew Imag ing

JOHN KELLY as the dog-man Prince in L.A. Opera’s ex­per­i­men­tal, apoc­a­lyp­tic “Dog Days.” With its heavy-metal mu­sic, it’s new ter­ri­tory for the opera com­pany.

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