Friday, October 16, 2015

O Columbia

[Soprano Pureum Jo as Becca in O Columbia; photograph by Lynn Lane appears with the Wall Street Journal review of the production written by Heidi Waleson.]

This is a shamefully overdue review of the O Columbia, which we saw on opening night on September 23 (the first of only two performances).

This chamber opera was everything I'd hoped it would be.

Although we've seen bits and pieces of this opera throughout its entire development over the last year and a half, this was the first time we heard the full music played by the chamber orchestra, and it was gorgeous. I don't know why -- possibly because all the creators behind O Columbia are so young -- but somehow I wasn't prepared for how full and rich the music would be. Now? We'll be on particular lookout for opportunities to see composer Gregory Spears' work performed. And by this time, Royce Vavrek's libretto was an old familiar friend (in addition to the workshops, I saw a preview event at NASA the previous Friday, in which the cast performed some excerpts). I've loved this libretto all along, but it was really special to hear the words in their intended context.

The production was staged in the Revention Music Center (formerly the Bayou Music Center), an open warehouse-like venue that not only hosts concerts, but also roller derby matches and wrestling entertainment. The stage was set with a billowy white backdrop, with the small orchestra, consisting mainly of strings, seated in front. Dressed in black with white sneakers, the cast initially sat in a ring of white chairs surrounding a bed and a small stand with a record player: the bedroom of Becca, portrayed by Pureum Jo, a young girl who daydreams about going into space one day. Along with her classmates, Becca first contemplates Sir Walter Raleigh (Ben Edquist), who sings about the inherent risks of exploration and traveling to the New World. He also mourns the lost Roanoke colonists, and says that the best way to honor them is to continue exploring.

In the second part, Becca is in her Houston bedroom awaiting the return of the Columbia space shuttle, and carries on an imaginary conversation with an astronaut (also sung by Edquist), in which she asks him what he sees, and asks for a role in the mission. She is, of course, devastated upon hearing the news of the shuttle's disintegration, but still determined to go into space.

In part three, Becca looks to the future, to a time when humans are exploring beyond the solar system, looking for habitable planets elsewhere. Lady Columbia (Megan Samarin) appears to tell the astronauts that she is watching over them as she does with all explorers, including those who are lost.

The hardest part to convey here is how original and inspired director Kevin Newbury's staging was. Except for Lady Columbia, all of the singers, dressed in black with white sneakers, remained on stage for the entire 70-minute opera. In addition to the chairs, they each had a simple, stylized astronaut helmet, and used the chairs, flashlights, and even the bedding to various effect. I was moved when I realized that the chairs, now stacked in a jumble, were meant to signify the shuttle wreckage. As the seats were general admission and we got there at the last minute due to dinner plans beforehand, we ended up sitting high up to one side, but I didn't feel we missed anything from that vantage point, because the singers were constantly in motion and facing different directions all the time.

Honestly? I think the only thing I might have been tempted to change would be to dress Lady Columbia differently than the other singers, especially as she did not come on stage until part three. I understand why dressing her the same as everyone else makes sense, but I kept picturing her in a draped white gown to go with the laurel wreath upon her head.

After the performance, we stayed for the "Talk Back", or Q&A, with the creators, and then went to an informal celebratory gathering at the Okra Charity Saloon. This was especially fun for me, because although most of the performers weren't there, I did get to chat with one of the Ensemble cast, Teresa Proctor, who performs frequently with HGOco. I also had a truly fascinating conversation with the opera's lighting designer, Michael James Clark. I know so little about that part of the opera world, and I'm afraid I pestered him with all sorts of questions.

The other nice thing is that I'm finally starting to feel like HGO is not just an opera company, but my opera company. That may sound silly, but for me, it's been harder to feel connected to the opera because the lead roles for the main stage productions are imports, whereas with the ballet, we get to watch the same dancers over the years. But now that we've gotten to see some HGOco productions, we get to see those singers as well as some of the HGO Studio artists. This season, we're going to see all three leads from O Columbia in main stage productions: Megan Samarin as Olga in Eugene Onegin, Pureum Jo as Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro, and Ben Edquist in Eugene Onegin, The Little Prince, and Carousel. How cool is that?

In the meantime, I have my fingers crossed that O Columbia will be picked up by other companies, especially in places where there is a NASA center or a higher-than-average interest in the space sciences. The Phoenix Opera, for instance, would be ideal for this piece, because both Arizona State and the University of Arizona have planetary science programs, plus the Planetary Science Institute is located in Tucson, just a short trip down the highway. And Phoenix already has a built-in opera audience. Then there's Washington D.C. (NASA Headquarters), Los Angeles (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), and Orlando (Kennedy Space Center). Seriously, more people need to see this.

[Megan Samarin as Lady Columbia, Pureum Jo as Becca, and Bed Edquist as Sir Walter Raleigh/Astronaut. Photo by Lynn Lane.]

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