With a rarely staged early work by George Gershwin and a charming contemporary piece, the 9th Ward Opera Company swings into summer, taking audiences on a bright journey into the Jazz Age.The year-old troupe of young singers, under the artistic direction of Kathleen Westfall, brought a brisk vitality to the Marigny Opera House with the two brief works – “Blue Monday,” Gershwin’s first explorations into an operatic form, and “An Embarrassing Position,” a new work by local composer Dan Shore, based on a story by Kate Chopin.
“Blue Monday” had its unlikely premiere in the 1922 edition of “The George White Scandals,” the long-running series of Broadway revues, primarily known for their vaudeville-style acts, peppy songs and long-legged and scandalously dressed chorus girls. Although many of Gershwin’s early songs debuted in the “Scandals,” it was clear that “Blue Monday” didn’t quite fit the bill. He withdrew it from the revue after opening night.
Paul Whiteman later brought the piece back with a new orchestration, recognizing it as the first true work of symphonic jazz. Incorporating jazz and American popular song into an operatic form, Gershwin also was influenced by the black culture of the emerging Harlem Renaissance. This culmination of influences gives the brief work a brash energy that the members of the 9th Ward Opera embraced with exuberance.
Though running only 25 minutes, “Blue Monday” is an ambitious work. Set in a Harlem speakeasy during Prohibition, the basic plot is a modern retelling of Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci,” a love triangle between a gambler, a flapper and a nightclub singer. Gershwin even gives Joe, the sharply dressed gambler, a Prologue worthy of Leoncavallo’s Tonio.
Written in just five days, the torrid story by Buddy DeSylva is little more than a potboiler but within Gershwin’s music, hints of such later works as “Rhapsody in Blue” could be heard; the entire piece clearly prefigures “Porgy and Bess.”
In the lead roles, the young singers showed strong command of the music and the roles. Prentiss Mouton sang the part of Joe with a swaggering flair and a ringing tenor voice. Soprano Ebonee Davis created saucy appeal as Vi, his lover, singing with a bold, big voice. She was matched by Kentrell Roberts, singing the part of Tom, the rival lover, with a rich baritone. Dedrian Hogan was especially
effective as Sam, singing the resonant commentary on the action; Vickie Thomas was an imposing May, who runs the speakeasy.
Audiences might expect that Gershwin, no matter how rare, would be difficult to top. But Shore’s “An Embarrassing Position,” did just that. An utterly charming little comedy, Shore’s one-act opera does something that few contemporary classical pieces do – it sends the audience out humming the tunes!
Shore, a Pennsylvania-born composer and playwright, now on the faculty of Xavier University, shows a remarkable felicity for melodic phrasing in a work that is distinctly of the time it depicts, while never falling into mere pastiche. It is a modern work that acknowledges its origins and influences, most notably in its structure, with multiple vocal lines reminiscent of Donizetti, and musical humor of Rossini. Add a splash of Gilbert and Sullivan patter and you’re sure to have audiences smiling.
The story, set in New Orleans of the 1890s, has a noted bachelor and candidate for political office, Mr. Parkham, being visited unexpectedly one evening by the lovely young (and seemingly naïve) daughter of socialite friends. When a gossip columnist arrives for an interview, potential scandal erupts.
Dedrian Hogan was delightful as the befuddled Parkham, singing richly and reacting comically as he has various women throwing themselves at him.
Lesley DeMartin portrayed his potential love interest, Miss Eva, with a winking charm. Her bright, clean voice brought the role to life. What might be titled the “Telegram” aria was especially pleasing, as was their courtship duet over tea, asking “How many lumps?”
As the columnist, June Jenkins, Rebecca Ryan added laughs and stunning top notes. Toni Skidmore and Maria Thomas each were strong in supporting roles.
Madeline Thibodeaux conducted and pianist Ronald Joseph was the accompanist for both operas, each bringing a swinging jazz sensibility, while also appreciating the precision of each opera. Margaret-Anne David directed “Blue Monday,” capturing its kinetic energy; Danielle Edinburgh staged “An Embarrassing Position” with a particularly pleasing sense of comic timing.
Both operas were double-cast. Other singers will appear at some of this weekend’s performances.
The spacious Marigny Opera House is a pleasant repurposing of the long-closed Holy Trinity Church. The historic site is slowly undergoing renovations and has become an important focal point in the downtown arts scene. It is a unique and comfortable space, however, its vast openness, tiled floors and plastered walls combine to make the old church an acoustically difficult venue for the voice, requiring singers to redouble efforts to be precise with diction.
Get downtown this weekend to hear these shining young talents in this pair of appealing shows. One day, you might be able to say, “I saw them when …”