The New York Times


Cultural Desk; 1

Review/Music; New Work by American Opera Projects


9 December 1990
The New York Times
Late Edition - Final
p. 83

American Opera Projects, an organization that presents new works and works in progress, has a video project it calls Op-TV, in which it aims to make films of arias and short worksand to win new audiences for opera by playing the clips on television. The project's prospectus lists standard repertory arias of all kinds as suitable subjects.

But the program is also commissioning new works, and on Tuesday evening at the Blue Door Studio, it presented its first two commissions of the year, "Blind Witness News," by Ben Yarmolinsky and Charles Bernstein, and "The Funeral of Jan Palach," by Connie Beckley and David Shapiro.

"Blind Witness News," toys with the project's television esthetic by adopting one of the medium's formats, a local newscast. Mr. Bernstein's libretto catches with near perfection the stock verbal moves -- the forced laughter, empty banter, catch-phrases and cutesy segues -- in which television news reports are cushioned. He also has some fun with the two anchors, giving them not only inane stories but also a few that make so little sense they cannot figure out how to project them.

Mr. Yarmolinsky's wildly eclectic score suits this parody well. Like the fictional news report in the libretto, the music has a coherent formal structure that serves as a frame for the deliberately lightweight, flighty material. Opera itself is skewered here: a financial report is presented as a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song; minor tragedies are couched either in a bluesy, Gershwin-like style or as Baroque recitative, and the weather report is set as a florid bel canto aria. There was even a hint of Frank Zappa in the work's introductory section.

The singers -- Rondi Charleston, James Javore, Suzanna Guzman and Lynn Randolph -- were comfortable in this stylistic melange, which was sung to a synthesizer accompaniment played by Elizabeth Rodgers and Steve Tyler.

"The Funeral of Jan Palach," an eerie, 14-minute fantasy about the Czechoslovak dissident who committed suicide during the 1968 uprising, was an acidic counterbalance to the frivolity of "Blind Witness News." Mr. Shapiro's spare, otherworldly poetry has Palach (David Frye) speaking from the grave as his mother (Jane Shaulis) laments. An unidentified man (Harlan Foss) and woman (Margaret Bishop) serve as a kind of Greek chorus.

In her dark, appealing score, Ms. Beckley gives Palach and his mother evocatively modal, chantlike music in their solo sections. But her most striking music is in the madrigal-like ensembles, supported only by a pair of flutists (Jayn Rosenfeld and Debi Pellkofer). Taken together with Ms. Beckley's minimal, Bergmanesque staging, in which the characters are illuminated by the orange neon bulbs that represent death, the music is a powerful, concise reflection of the text.



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