Review: Exploratory ‘First Take’ presents six operas in progress

Mezzo-soprano Julia Aks sings during "Translation," one of the works in progress performed during "First Take" at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. [For the Record: An earlier version of this caption identified the singer on the screen as soprano Maria Elena Altany.]
Mezzo-soprano Julia Aks sings during “Translation,” one of the works in progress performed during “First Take” at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. [For the Record: An earlier version of this caption identified the singer on the screen as soprano Maria Elena Altany.]
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)
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Los Angeles Times Music Critic

Opera as an art form about investigation might seem a radical idea in a modern world where so much about contemporary arts and entertainment is defined by conventional narrative. But such wasn’t always the case. It still isn’t in opera outside the American music theater mainstream.


Opera: In the Feb. 23 Calendar section, a photo caption with a review of the “First Take” opera performances at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts identified a singer as soprano Maria Elena Altany. The singer is mezzo-soprano Julia Aks. —
Saturday afternoon at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, six resourceful new American composers, most emerging, went back to opera’s non-narrative essence as a looking glass into the psyche. This happened, of all places, in Beverly Hills on Oscar Eve, where opera-goers waded through construction for the next day’s Vanity Fair party to reach the theater.

The program was “First Take,” an unstaged sampling of the opening scenes of six operas-in-progress put on by the Industry, the experimental Los Angeles company, and wild Up, the experimental orchestra, both busy transforming musical life.


All the works had in common was that none, as so many American opera companies now seem to want, had a Hollywood movie tie-in. And that was despite the fact that the afternoon offered the opening scenes of Andrew McIntosh’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” and that the program began with Jenny Olivia Johnson’s “The After Time,” which the composer described as a darkly comedic “Law & Order”-style opera.

Johnson, who wrote her own libretto and calls her work “A VHS Opera in Three Fragments,” was about not knowing. A beautiful student dancer falls to her death, which her infatuated friend thinks she witnesses but can’t be sure.

Beauty is transient, and through a delicate score, triggered by falling line in the piano and sensitively sung by Justine Aronson and Lauren Davis, what TV would treat as a police procedural begins as a meditation on the answerable. I hope it boldly stays that way.

Paul Pinto’s “Unintelligible Response,” which followed, concerns Thomas Paine, whom the composer described as “the lowliest of our Founding Fathers, but the most fascinating.” Paine is, in this surreal work, a radio talk show host. And a woman.

In a riveting spoken performance by the soprano Joan La Barbara, this Paine, in a white suit, looked a little like Hilary Clinton but sounded like a feisty, profane and profound revolutionary. She mixed it up with members of the orchestra (who answered back) and a three-man chorus.

For the final bit, the chorus chanted a Paine phrase gradually transformed from idealism to hate speech. Something is happening, you don’t know what it is, but you know to be very, very worried.


The two operas for the middle segment of the afternoon were conceptual and anti-operatic. In Nomi Epstein’s “Translation,” singers or instrumentalists walked across stage to stand behind an illuminated screen (they were also projected on a rear video) and make barely audible sounds. The orchestra followed a score with complex instructions about how the musicians should respond.

The composer wrote that she couldn’t know exactly what would happen, and the idea seemed to be that communication has its own laws. It cannot be controlled, try as a politician or musician might.

Jason Thorpe Buchanan’s “Hunger,” loosely based Knut Hamsun’s novel, is a kind of training session in mental disintegration. Darcie Dennigan’s libretto is an elliptical depiction of a homeless writer, personified by two singers — an Outer Self (Andrew Dwan) and Inner Self (Stephanie Aston). He sells his blood and his sperm. He becomes like a dog desperate for meat.

An ungodly opera needs ugly music, singers who produce primal sounds, an electric guitar that sounds scraped raw, a wailing orchestral effects, cuts the ear like a knife. Buchanan delivers.

The final two operas were by Los Angeles composers. McIntosh’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” with a libretto by Melinda Rice, is a kind of musical annotation on the infamous couple. They knew they were going to die, and we know it too. We can then look back on everything they did as having a kind of in-the-moment heightened sensitivity, that by living to die they are more alive.

In the seven short scenes, Bonnie (Justine Aronson) and Clyde (Jon Kennan) represent more states of mind than characters, buffeted by prison and flight. McIntosh’s score is fascinatingly changeable, going beyond the commonplace impulsiveness that is normally associated with fugitives.


Finally, there was Anne LeBaron’s acid trip that many in the audience had been clearly waiting for. She had composed the Industry’s first opera, “Crescent City.” In “LSD: The Opera,” she expands consciousness with an expanded orchestra, incorporating Harry Partch’s gorgeously weird microtonal instruments into the orchestra in a way no one has thought of before.

We begin with Swiss scientist Albert Hoffmann (Ashley Faatoalia) synthesizing LSD for the first time and being the first to trip out. LeBaron, who wrote the libretto with Gerd Stern and Ed Rosenfeld, makes LSD a character — actually an irresistible trio of sirens. They enter into a seductively psychedelic “Helix Dance.”

In the final scene thus far written, Aldous Huxley’s wife, Laura (Suzanna Guzman), witnesses the writer’s final trip, his last wish on his death bed being a shot of 100 micrograms of the drug. She sings him on, unforgettably, “to the light, into the light....”

This is the second time the Industry has produced a “First Take” program; the first was at the Hammer Museum two years ago, and four of those six operas-in-progress have gone on to further development.

This year’s deserves an even better average. The performances were consistently excellent, with Marc Lowenstein and Christopher Rountree conducting an increasingly impressive wild Up.

A huge shout-out goes to Yuval Sharon, the Industry’s founder, who found the operas, got them performed, recorded the performances so that the composers will have something to take around to opera houses and raised the money to present the program to the public for free.