Cannibalism, murder, masturbation, pot-smoking (the last two in one scene) . . . Fort Worth Opera seems determined to set the record for shock on the operatic stage with the current production of David T. Little’s Dog Days at Scott Theatre.
Also, fortunately, in addition to its shock value, Dog Days has all the markings of an operatic and dramatic masterpiece, and its presentation in Fort Worth will go down as one of the more significant dates in the region’s operatic history.
The opera Dog Days is based on Judy Budnitz’s dark short story of the same name (first published in 1995), a dark, beautifully modulated work destined for a place in the canon of iconic American short fiction. Set in the not-too-distant future, in an America apparently defeated in war, Budnitz’s story narrates the sufferings of a family facing the disappearance of basic resources in a zone in which all animal life has disappeared, policed by a usually absent security force whose main function is recruitment of more soldiers.
Like most dystopian literature (e.g., 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, A Clockwork Orange, Farenheit 451, We), Budnitz’s “Dog Days”—and the opera based on the story—is as much about current conditions as it is about some imagined future, albeit in symbolic and hyperbolic terms. Unemployment has emptied the town, the father of the family is enraged by his inability to provide for his family, teenagers are alienated and self-absorbed, parents cling to increasingly meaningless traditions, and an adolescent girl finds herself puzzled and alienated. The environment is in ruins, the news is unreliable, the streets are unsafe—all of which may sound familiar, if somewhat exaggerated, to anyone living in America in 2015.
Enter, as a world similar to our own begins to crumble, a man in a dog suit, smelly, ragged, and starving, as would be expected in unimaginably hard times. Is he human or animal? And should he be treated as the former or the latter? In this sense, both opera and story pose that very hard question: what does it mean to be human?
Most opera composers and librettists face the task of whittling a full-length book or play down to fit into two hours; composer Little and librettist Royce Vavrek had the opposite task of expanding a thirteen-page story into a two-hour stage work. Budnitz’s remarkable economy of style allows a good deal of room for speculation and exploration of character, which Vavrek and Little exploit magnificently. There’s plenty of vicious, ear-grating dissonance and electronic noise, but there are also tremendous stretches of arresting lyricism and beautiful writing for the voice; oddly, one of the most shocking scenes, in which two brothers masturbate and smoke pot, is also one of the most musically touching, capturing the tragedy of two young men dreaming of a future they won’t have.
(While the original story ends much in the manner of Shirley Jackson’s iconic small-town horror tale “The Lottery,” the operatic version closes with a wordless epilogue in which one character chooses to separate herself from the inhuman horror she has witnessed, in the manner of Ursula LeGuin’s equally iconic “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”)
This presentation, part of Fort Worth Opera’s 2015 spring festival (which also includes Verdi’s La Traviata and Thomas’s Hamlet), is actually a touring production, with a cast, sets, and a small orchestra headed later this year to Los Angeles. Lauren Worsham as the girl Lisa heads up a magnificent ensemble cast including Michael Marcotte and Peter Tantsits as her brothers Elliott and Pat, with Marnie Breckenridge as her mother; James Bobick brings a frightening sense of reality to his role as Lisa’s father Howard. John Kelly takes on the wordless role of the man in the dog suit, ironically named “Prince.” Conductor Alan Pierson holds the extraordinarily complex score together neatly and convincingly, and stage director Robert Woodruff introduces all the nuanced and outlandish body language of a dysfunctional family.
Sets and video by Jim Findlay are disturbingly evocative, with a constant barrage of special effects including drones-eye and surveillance camera views—and equally frightening, a doomed adolescent girl’s desperate view of herself in a mirror. A backdrop screen presents a shaded bucolic scene including a church steeple, which the viewer make of what he or she will. As in most operas, only about fifty percent of the task was clearly understandable; although captions might intrude on the perfect scenery, there are many moments when knowing exactly what words are being sung would be a welcome addition to the performance.