March 16th, 2015

Skylight Music Theatre: "The Snow Dragon"

World premieres of new operas are fairly uncommon, although we’ve seen a few, such as Rio de Sangre at the Florentine Opera in 2010, and The Rivals at the Skylight in 2011, but it must be fairly rare for the average opera fan to be able to attend a premiere of an opera by a composer with which he is acquainted.

That was the singular experience we enjoyed on March 13th, as the Skylight Music Theatre opened The Snow Dragon, with music and libretto by Somtow Sucharitkul. During his career as a science fiction, fantasy, and horror author, Somtow had been author guest of honor at Milwaukee’s X-Con, and was remembered as an excellent guest, erudite, witty, and excellent company. Therefore, we had to attend. We got main floor seats as part of a block with “OperaCon” (of which more later) and had a very good time at this remarkable opera.

The opera is based upon a story by Somtow, called “The Fallen Country.” Inspired by the experiences of a friend, the story deals with violent child abuse and the generational cycle by which it is perpetuated. The story did not find a publisher for some years (It was vehemently, but ultimately fortuitously, rejected for inclusion in The Last Dangerous Visions--) until picked up for an anthology by Terri Windling.  Since then, the story has been recollected, and was also substantially reworked as a Young Adult novel for Bantam. However, the opera libretto is closer to the original story.

The opera opens with a magical overture, during which we see the protagonist, Billy Binder (Luke Brotherhood), a young boy, rescued from a high place by firemen. We learn that it is a church steeple, and a mystery as to how he got up there, as well as how he got frostbitten in the oppressive Florida heat.

Billy is referred to the school counselor, Dora Marx (Collen Brooks), who recognizes the signs of physical abuse in Billy. In order to get him to open up to her, she encourages him to tell her what she thinks is his escapist fantasy, of finding his way into the “Fallen Country,” a cold gray land where there is no pain because there is no feeling. The Fallen Country is home to the marvelous Snow Dragon (Cassandra Black), who befriends the boy, but also to the sinister Ringmaster, who rules the world with “his whip of burning cold.” Billy, who has not yet given up all feeling, finds that there he can channel his anger into power and perform feats like breaking shackles and freeing princesses. He longs to meet the Ringmaster, who is the alter-ego of his mother’s brutal lover, Stark (Dan Kempson) so that he can kill him, but his anger doesn’t sustain him in the Fallen Country long enough to reach the Ringmaster.  Dora thanks Billy for sharing his story, to which he replies, “It isn’t a story.”

In the second act, Billy is hospitalized by Stark’s brutality. Dora confronts Billy’s mother, Joan (Erica Schuller), who at first maintains that Billy had a bicycle accident. Then, she breaks down, saying that Stark isn’t a man, but “a force, a wind.”  Stark, alone with Billy, whispers threats to the boy, which tell us that he, too, is aware of the Fallen Country.

Dora decides she has to call the police to intervene. When she comes with them to Billy’s house, Stark is sleeping, but talks in his sleep, saying, “I never asked to be hated. I never asked for the cold to sink into my heart,” and other things that let Dora know that the Fallen Country is indeed real.  Stark becomes the Ringmaster, and opens the way to the Fallen County, dragging Joan with him, where she becomes the captive Princess. Billy pursues, but calls to Dora, telling her he needs her help and belief to reach and defeat the Ringmaster.

With Dora’s help, Billy gets to the Ringmaster’s tent lair, and the final conflict is initiated, with a twist due to the revelation of the Ringmaster’s dire secret.

Somtow’s libretto brings us the affecting story very effectively, and is totally integrated with the score. The music is both modern, and tuneful and sonorous, with just enough eerie effect for a magical plot without resembling a “Harry Potter” soundtrack in the least.  Somtow achieves that rare thing in modern music, harmony, especially with the second act trio for the three female voices.

Artistic Director Vishwa Subbaraman, who also conducts, assembled an extremely talented and skillful cast and crew. Luke Brotherhood as Billy has a long and challenging role for a child singer, and did superbly well in both vocal and physical acting the part of the abused but defiant boy.  Ms. Brooks was totally believable as the tired social worker who has seen too much, heard too much, and known too little success in her work. Strong and handsome, Mr. Kempson embodied the kind of attractive man that needy women are drawn to, only to discover his core of violence after it is too late.  Ms. Schuller, as Billy’s mother also did an excellent job in the role of the conflicted mother/princess figure.  The role of the Snow Dragon should be considered a plum role, and Cassandra Black inhabited it, sounding and looking magnificent in her glittering costume and spiky headdress. The orchestra presented Somtow’s score without noticeable flaw, and in excellent balance with the singers.

The setting, by William Boles, was largely symbolic, there being a small set of mundane rooms for Dora’s office and Billy’s house. The stark Fallen Country was represented by the bare concrete of the stage back wall, with bits that flew in and out, representing giant ice crystals, stars, and the circus ring emblematic of the entry to the Country. One puzzling bit was a number of pairs of white shoes dangling from ropes. (Even Somtow wasn’t sure what they were supposed to represent--).  However, the best piece was the great Dragon, which, in flight, was represented by a twenty-two foot long puppet, borne aloft by the choristers, fins gently waving as it ‘flew’ about the stage, softly glowing under ultraviolet light.  The elaborate lighting plot by David Gipson added greatly.

Costumes by Jason Orlenko were generally simple but effective.  The “real world” costumes were subtly suggestive: Billy’s torn t-shirt, the color of dried blood.  Stark’s sleeveless shirt, showing off his brawny, tattooed arms, emphasized his power and dangerousness.  Dora’s lightweight and pastel colored ensemble perfectly portrayed an office drudge who hasn’t quite yet given up all hope. She clutches her leather messenger bag—her “baggage”—to her as though it were a teddy bear. Joan’s outfit of tunic top, Capri leggings, and flat Mary Jane shoes made her look like the most childlike of all the cast. The effect in which she changed her bathrobe into the elaborate Princess’ gown was just nifty—there’s no other word for it. The Ringmaster’s uniform was wonderfully elaborate with its own dark beauty—many young boys would have, at least figuratively, killed for it--.

 The Snow Dragon captures and sets to music the problem of domestic violence against children, and plays it out as an Oedipal contest of wills, which, ultimately, can only come to an end when one party finds a strategy other than the obvious. It is quite powerful.

 The Skylight has partnered with local anti-abuse groups and resources, including arranging to have a child psychologist on hand during school showings, and listed contact information in their Audience Guide for the production.

 The Snow Dragon continues through March 29th.

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When we became aware last year that Somtow would be in town for the production of “The Snow Dragon,” we said, “We must get together and do something.” Local SF fans Leah Zeldes Smith and Dick Smith took the idea and ran with it, setting up OperaCon, something probably unique in the annals of fandom, a relaxacon centered around an opera performance. The Smiths took the initiative in contacting the Skylight Music Theatre and reserving a block of tickets for what became a sold-out opening night.

They worked with the Skylight to arrange some particular events, especially the private question and answer session with Somtow at the Skylight Saturday afternoon, which included a look backstage and upclose examination of the Dragon puppet. The Skylight had “Welcome OperaCon” signs in the lobby, and we got little gift bags of chocolate as special guests, as well as an explicit invitation to the Skylight’s after party (which is generally open to “First Nighters”, but it was nice to be specifically asked. We had the opportunity to meet other members of the cast and crew, toast the production in champagne, and those who felt inclined could partake of a generous cold collation. (We were both still full from dinner--).

OperaCon began Thursday with move-in to a set of comfortable rooms on the sixth floor of the Hilton Milwaukee Center. Somtow had relocated from his Skylight-provided housing to rooms across the hall. A great deal of food and drink, name badges, program books, and tickets were brought in. Somtow provided the special edition librettos for each member, which he autographed. Members drifted in through the afternoon and into the evening, and the party was officially on.

We got back to the hotel Friday afternoon, bringing along the Snow Dragon cake that the Smiths had commissioned from Georgie, in order to celebrate their immanent thirtieth wedding anniversary. The cake was pronounced good, and safely stowed away until its Saturday evening unveiling. About four o’clock, I changed into my full white tie for the opening, and about four-thirty set off for the group dinner at the Milwaukee Ale House.

The Ale House is a “brew pub” occupying the ground floor of one of the restored Third Ward commercial buildings about two blocks from the Skylight. It has an extensive menu of food and its own home-brewed beers as well as many other craft beers. It is nice for a post-Industrial space, although the exposed brick tends to make the ambiance loud and hard to hold a conversation in. The Milwaukee Ale House management and staff were very accommodating for our group. A lot of Milwaukee restaurants don’t even take reservations on Friday night, let alone for groups of forty. The servers were cheerful and responsive, and we got our food in plenty of time to make it to the opera. Georgie and I had the fried cod fish fry, which was very good. Georgie had potato pancakes with hers, which she thought were tasty, but made with a bit too much flour. Others at the table, however, pronounced them “just like Grandma used to make,” so recipes can vary.

For a review of the Opera itself, see my separate article. It was good!

We left the after-party at the Skylight a bit before eleven PM, and went home to bed. We understand the party continued at the Hilton well into the morning hours.

Saturday morning, we came back to the Hilton, bringing along a cardamom coffee cake from Beans and Barley, and a couple of pies to celebrate the special Pi Day. (3/14/15--). (If you had a a sweet tooth, OperaCon was a great con for you. Besides Milwaukee coffee cake and Racine kringle, Leah had ordered "kaddush" cakes from Chicago, which were delicious dense confections full of cinnamon and sugar.)

The talk for the membership was scheduled for one thirty PM, back at the Skylight auditorium. For unknown reasons, Maestro Subbaraman never made it (the one disappointment of the weekend). One of the Skylight staffers gamely took the stage along with Somtow, who held forth about music and literature with his customary erudition and humor. My humorously intended opening question, “How do you justify your existence?” surprised us by eliciting the anecdote that Somtow had actually been a guest of the famous Trap Door Spiders dining club (Isaac Asimov, George Scithers, Lester Del Rey and others) who customarily began grilling their guests with that question. Somtow talked candidly about his career in music, his rejection by the Thai cultural establishment, his reinvention as a writer, and his calling back to music, this time greeted with more success.

At the end of the talk, we were permitted to go onstage, examine the back stage and look closely at (but not touch!) the Snow Dragon puppet, which was fascinating.

At this time, Georgie and I ditched OperaCon temporarily since we had tickets for the 5PM Early Music Now concert. (To be reviewed later.) We got back to the hotel approximately eight o'clock, just as gears were being shifted for the Smith's anniversary observation.

I helped cut and serve the cake and pies, and a good time was had by all. Again, we folded up before midnight, but I understand the party again ran long.

Sunday morning I checked back in at the Hilton, finding that the Smiths and other helpers had clean-up well in hand in an atmosphere of jolly contentment, and would not be moving out until Monday, so I hung out for a while and then went home to take care of business there.

OperaCon was a very nice time and a lovely event. Thanks to the Smiths for all their work in making it happen!

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