LEE CULLUM PICKS THE MOST MEMORABLE OF THE PAST 12 MONTHS.
FOR AN UNALLOYED TRIUMPH: Everest. This extraordinary new
work, commissioned by the Dallas Opera from composer Joby
Talbot and librettist Gene Scheer, took my breath away, and not just
because of the altitude. With Robert Brill’s white cubes filling the
proscenium, top to stage, and video projections by Elaine McCarthy,
a genius of the form, this is a true and tragic tale of seekers whose
fear is not behind them but beside them, to paraphrase another
Robert Frost—making their way a “crooked straightness” that led
straight to cold catastrophe.
But the warmth of the singing, especially by tenor Andrew
Bidlack, a guide for this dreadful climb, and Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano who played his wife, the expedition doctor on a previous
trek, who had stayed home this time, pregnant, brought not only
tears in the face of their fate, but empathy unusual in opera, where
doomed heroes often seem long ago and far away.
Not in Everest. Maybe it’s Joby Talbot’s music for movies along
with ballet that makes his first opera so immediate. Maybe it’s Gene
Scheer’s spare dialogue and profound commentary that keeps Everest
ever on the edge of brilliance. Whatever the magic, I saw this opera
twice and can’t wait to see it again, and again. It is a story, both real
and metaphorical, for our own time.
FOR POWER: The Testament of Mary. At the Undermain Theater,
Colm Toíbín’s novella-turned-one-woman-tour de force opened
with nothing on the stage to speak of except an ominous, long,
black tarp that covered much and, when yanked away, revealed the
mother of God, grimly resisting the role being thrust upon her.
Shannon Kearns’s Mary was in no mood for the splendor of
sanctification. Nor was she willing to affirm the gathering gospel
of resurrection and return. She could not believe that her son was
coming back, nor fathom why he rejected her, twice: when he left
on a quest both dubious (to her) and dangerous, and again, near the
end, when he refused to heed her warning of mortal threat.
From the strange and inexplicable joy Mary had felt when
carrying the unborn Jesus, to her anguish at his end, Kearns delivered
the Word made flesh in all its mystery, magnified by centuries of
yearning. Though some have whipped Testament into a frenzy of
emotion, Undermain director Katherine Owens understood that
the quietest intensity was necessary to grapple effectively with this
combustible material. Together, she and Shannon Kearns achieved
an apotheosis of their own.
FOR EXHILARATION: Remix: Hollywood Exile, SOLUNA
Festival. Whatever happened to the glory days of Hollywood
when Hemingway and Faulkner wrote for the movies, and so did
émigré composers from Hitler’s Europe, fleeing terror from their
sublimated fears mining rapturous delight? Some of them, including
Stravinsky and Schoenberg, were heard at the City Performance
Hall, played by the Dallas Symphony, with red or teal shoes or sox
showing up here and there in the strings section, as has become the
happy custom on Remix nights.
Hungarian composer Miklós Rózsa got special treatment. For
his Andante for String Orchestra, much-admired Swiss video artist
Pipilotti Rist was commissioned to create a work that dazzled on a
screen filling the wall behind the music. Sensual, elegant, evocative,
from autumn leaves to a violin scraping through the snow to a dark-haired young man too beautiful for his own good—these were
images of renewal that refused to be ironic or ambiguous.
If that were not enough homage to Hungary in Hollywood,
young dynamo-at-the-piano Conrad Tao gave us Rózsa’s Spellbound
Concerto, the fantastic accompaniment to Ingrid Bergman and
Gregory Peck skiing down a psychically slippery slope in the film
of the same name. What was clear by the time the evening ended
is this: There were three stars on stage at SOLUNA: Pipilotti, Tao,
and Karina Canellakis, assistant conductor of the DSO. Startlingly
charismatic, with authority that is as crisp as it is competent, she
also has a flair for the theater of music. So did the DSO at Remix.
FOR CHARM: Sense and Sensibility. Kate Hamill gave us a masterful
adaptation at Dallas Theater Center of Jane Austen’s masterpiece of
a novel. Stylishly set by Andrew Boyce at the Kalita Humphreys,
This page, from left to right: Tenor Andrew Bidlack, starred as Rob Hall, the guide in Everest in The Dallas Opera world premiere; photography by Karen Almond. Shannon Kearns in The Testament of Mary; photography by Katherine Owens; courtesy of Undermain Theater. Conrad Tao is Artist-in-Residence for the Dallas Symphony’s
inaugural SOLUNA International Music & Arts Festival.