Tom Johnson’s chamber opera “Sopranos Only” dispenses with the common devices of plot and tension and finds instead a dramatic continuity in its own self-consciousness. It received its American premiere Monday night at the Goodrich Theater on the campus of Oneonta State University, in a double bill with Carleton Clay’s “Howcum, Oklahoma?”
Six sopranos complement one another and compete in exploring a haunting vocalise, sung to the spare accompaniment of flute, violin, cello and harp. At first sung wordlessly in a sort of round robin by successive sopranos, the theme is taken through a variety of texts and languages, usually with some kind of wordplay involved, and combined into choral sequences (with the attendant phase-shifting that so many soprano overtones will provoke) before ebbing to a quiet finish.
So many sopranos invite the kind of satiric horseplay Mozart wrote in “The Impresario,” but Johnson instead preserves the integrity of the prima donna and uses his singers to gently illustrate some musical ideas. Little moments of humor convey instruction almost without our knowing it, as when a soprano notes with disdain that “most of this scene will be a harp solo,” indicates the soloist (Barbara Dechario, doing a wonderful job) and vocalizes only for a measure or two. A young or unschooled audience would learn a lot from this piece, including terminology and the sound of some foreign languages.
The piece was presented with a comfortable sense of accomplishment, the six singers – Janet England, Johana Arnold, Neva Pilgrim, Lauralyn Kolb, Marlene Walt and Mary-Anne Ross – had magnificent voices and a dignified and amusing contrast of presence. The stage setting was a simple, lighted frame in which the singers could pose, portrait-like. Sets and lighting were by Patrice MaCaluso.
Carleton Clay adapted some stories written by his father into the scenes that comprise his chamber opera “Howcum, Oklahoma!” It takes its name from the town name pictured on an abandoned train station in one of the series of period photos that serve as a backdrop to the three scenes.
Clay’s writing is lean and very much at the service of his melodic ideas. Harmony is rarely more than a single-voiced accompaniment, but the lyricism of his instrumental writing serves as an excellent foundation for the vocal lines.
Starring throughout were tenor William MacDonald and bass J.B. Davis, with a good stage rapport that made it easy to establish right away the tension of the opening scene, “Shotgun Marriage,” a classic confrontation between aggrieved father (Davis) and virile farmhand.
The contrast between the two was made the more interesting by their vocal ranges – Davis has a very low bass range, while MacDonald’s tessitura is gutbustingly high.
In the second scene, “The Peddlar,” Davis takes the role of a smooth-talking salesman who convinces farm wife Rose Shipe (Neva Pilgrim) to buy merchandise she really can’t afford and then lie to husband Tom (MacDonald). The threat of some mighty scene stealing was introduced with Carl Turechek, an apple-cheeked youngster who played the part of little Tommy, but Turechek knew his movements and performed them well.
Roy Havrilac made an impressive operatic debut in the third scene, “The Man Who Shot at the Clouds,” singing a dialogue with MacDonald as they puzzle at old man Reynolds (Davis) and his unique approach to rain prevention.
Clay has written a work that fills its place as a single-act work with admirable dignity, telling fascinating stories that bring these people alive once again. It pairs well with the Johnson opera, but I’d prefer to see more of Clay’s work on the other half of a bill, perhaps exploring the same territory with more contrast and excitement.
The operas will be presented again at 8 p.m. today at the Carrier Theater in the Syracuse Civic Center.
– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 3 October 1990