Why Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers Program Ranks as One of the Most Significant Music Events of the Year

Although the mode of presentation was modest—with piano accompaniment only, and singers performing in bare-bones recital format—the two public sessions of Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers  program last Thursday and Friday at McDavid Studio in downtown Fort Worth easily rank as one of the most significant musical events of the year in these parts. Eight brand new operatic projects, ranging from a complete chamber opera to excerpts from larger works in progress, paraded across the stage in an event promising at least the possibility that audience members might be catching an early glimpse of the Carmen or the Don Giovanni of the early twenty-first century.

The most distinctive and original item on the agenda came at the close of the Friday afternoon session, in the form of an excerpt from Stephen Eddins’ setting (with libretto by Michael O’Brien) of iconic southern author Eudora Welty’s comical parable of family dysfunctionality, Why I Live at the P.O. Eddins’ strategy here was both derivative and unique, creating an appealing musical tapestry based largely on 1940s big band jazz (matching the era in which the story is set) with heavy overtones of gospel, spiritual, and ragtime. The opera, in its complete version, will feature big band accompaniment.

Meanwhile, Embedded by Patrick Soluri, presented on Thursday evening, combines Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Cask of Amantillado” with shades of All About Eve in a narrative concerning the conflict between an established female news anchor and an upstart young competitor, with a breaking story involving a terrorist complicating the mix. The twenty-minute excerpt presented on Thursday evening indicated that Soluri and librettist Deborah Brevoort have achieved a particularly powerful collaboration of evocative drama and richly lyrical, neo-romantic music.

Three of the other six works presented in the two sessions leaned on classic literary sources, an obvious and reliable operatic tradition. Composer Veronika Krausas and librettist Thomas Pettit bravely follow the footsteps of Verdi and Ernest Bloch in drawing on Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the chamber opera The Mortal Thoughts of Lady Macbeth. Distilling Shakespeare’s monumental tragedy down to a psychological portrait of Lady Macbeth, Krausus aims toward a unique synthesis of words and music and blurs the lines between instrumental and vocal music, with striking results. Composer Louis Karchin and librettist Diane Osen draw from another monument of British literature for their full-scale version of Bronte’s Jane Eyre, evoking that personal epic with neo-romantic lyricism and—as explained by composer Karchin, though not included in the two brief excerpts presented on Thursday—quotations from Donizetti, contemporaneous with the original story.

Composer Daniel Sonenberg and librettist Daniel Nester explore the ironies and tragedies of the world of segregated African American professional baseball in The Summer King, also in a traditional grand opera mode, while composer Brian Current and librettist Anton Piatigorsky personalize the horrors of airline catastrophe in Airline Icarus. Wang Jie’s From the Other Sky presents a fable of sex and the zodiac told with glittering dissonance, while Matt Frey’s The Fox and the Pomegranate (with libretto by Daniel J. Kushner) expands on musical minimalism and surrealistic, dreamlike verbal imagery. Frey’s work explored an impressively broad range of styles and musical conceptions in a performance that featured an impressive cast of young singers from the Fort Worth Opera who joined conductors Stephen Dubberly and Tyson Deaton and pianists Jody Schum and Stephen Carey.

Photo by  Kris Robertson

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