L.A. Opera is pushing into new territory. By joining forces with the Next On Grand festival of contemporary American music, it is engaging with the future of American opera. Its contribution is “Dog Days,” a collaboration between composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek, which runs at REDCAT through Monday.
Little is an inventive and prolific young opera composer. His upcoming projects include a work based on the last hours of JFK’s life for Fort Worth Opera.
Based on a short story by Judy Budnitz, “Dog Days” is set in a post-apocalyptic yet recognizably American home, a tale of a family devoured by isolation and poverty. Lisa, the young daughter, strikes up a friendship with a destitute man who acts like a dog. As hunger precipitates the family’s descent into madness, Lisa’s father is driven to shoot the dog-man for food.
Little’s music, conveyed by the warm precision of the ensemble Newspeak under the musical direction of Alan Pierson, makes the family’s gradual demise feel visceral. The background is one of harmonic repetition, tinged with shifting textures and timbres. It is a toy-box aesthetic, familiar from other contemporary opera composers, notably David Lang and Nico Muhly.
However, Little adds a signature ingredient: heavy metal.
Outbursts of distorted guitar and bass drum become more frequent, and more violent, as the story progresses. This heavy-metal motif appears at key moments, reflecting the family’s own downward spiral. It comes to a head in the epilogue, with a thunderous final chord, a long held drone that begins as a plaintive dirge for the mother but magnifies into the family’s death-shudder.
Vavrek’s libretto harnesses the plot’s morbid intensity by filling in details. By couching the family’s struggle into standard operatic forms — arias, ensemble numbers — Vavrek gives convincing shape to the two-hour-plus-long work, making a virtue of the need to elaborate.
We get to know the family first over dinner as they sing grace over paltry scraps of army rations. Little is good at making musical details depict internal states. The family begins each hymn verse together, but ends it on slightly different accents — a sign of frayed relations and disharmony.
The opera features some painfully revealing confrontations, like the daughter’s delusional aria in Act II, in which she praises her starved body because it is thin. The moment is staged to full effect, with the girl singing intently into a vanity mirror, her face amplified on a big screen above the stage. With feverish delivery, soprano Lauren Worsham makes the madness palpable.
So much abject suffering is hard to bear, as the father’s constant shouting makes apparent, brought home by the restless intensity of baritone James Bobick. There is little comic relief in the opera, aside from occasional pubescent antics from the pair of brothers, well characterized by tenors Michael Marcotte and Peter Tantsits. The mother is hauntingly played by soprano Marnie Breckenridge.
Nevertheless, Little and Vavrek manage to make the bleakness work dramatically, in part by ratcheting up the intensity over the opera’s entire span. By slow degrees, the family is dragged down to the point of starvation, depicted with lurid detail in the gruesome epilogue.
Where: REDCAT. 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, 8 p.m. Monday
Info: laopera.org, (213) 972-800