Any opera company would envy the demographic profile of last night’s audience at the world premiere of The Silent Prince by Thai composer Somtow Sucharitkul, a production of Opera Vista. To put it in plain English: the audience was full of young people. At an opera.
Could it be due in part to the monthly soirees at a bar in Montrose where Opera Vista Founder and Artistic Director Viswa Subbaraman hosts Opera 101? This program “explores a different aspect of this rich art form each month” and singers illustrate the concepts. I can’t help but think he has turned some 20 and 30-somethings into opera fans at these events. After learning a little background on this strange and wonderful art form called opera, it surely becomes less daunting and more attractive.
The opera’s story is set in Kashi (also known as Varanasi and/or Benares) on the banks of the River Ganges. After a brief prologue set in Heaven, we come down to earth in time to celebrate the birth of Temiya, son to the king and queen of Kashi. When he reaches age 12, the king gives his son a taste of what is involved in being the king. He tells Temiya to give the order for a criminal to be beheaded. The prince feels it’s an impossible moral dilemma, and collapses under the pressure. He withdraws from the world in his mind and stops speaking to or engaging with anyone.
A week later the king, frustrated by the prince’s enigmatic behavior, tries to tempt Temiya sensually with some desirable young women, but he is not moved. The king tries one last thing: he crowns his son “king for a day” and sends him forth on an elephant through the city to receive the accolades of the city. Temiya sits motionless and does not respond to the crowd, who then rejects him. The king is furious and orders his execution.
He is taken out to the forest and a grave is dug. Suddenly, a divine light shines on the gravedigger. He sees that Temiya is the source of the light, that he has assumed the divine form of the Bodhisattva (an incarnation of the Buddha). The king, queen, and entire court appear and prostrate themselves before him, and pledge to become disciples of Temiya.
The conducting of the delightful orchestra music was cleanly and expertly done by Viswa Subbaraman. The sound was rich, but not too dense. The addition of ‘exotic’ instruments (celesta, tamburas) gave the music a fresh appeal. At times the score sounded a bit like a John Adams score with a dab of Philip Glass thrown in, and then some traditional western music passages would appear with some soothing violins. There was some clang, knock, and drone added into the mix. It was somewhat experimental to a Western ear, not too melodic, but not entirely without tunes. This is the sound of contemporary opera.
The dancers of the Anjali Center for the Performing Arts made an appearance periodically and gave the stage some much-needed movement. They were very accomplished young women in (several sets of) glittering and brightly colored South Indian costumes. They helped supply the right mood for the place and time of the opera. This Indian classical dance reminded me of all the pictures I’ve seen of Hindu and Buddhist goddesses and dancing ladies.
Timothy Jones (King of Kashi) stood out as the seasoned professional with an arresting and commanding bass-baritone voice, natural stage movement, and top-notch acting. His queen, Chandra Devi, was portrayed by mezzo-soprano Shannon Langman with a versatile voice and excellent acting as her maternal character moved from ecstasy to agony over the misunderstood behavior of her only son, Temiya. Played by Ryan West, Temiya, who – as advertised – is silent for the majority of the opera, finally speaks up – or I should say sings up, toward the end of the evening with a clear and quite lovely and confident countertenor voice.
Other stand-outs include Elizabeth Borik as Amba, the boy’s wet nurse and ‘second mother’. Her acting and dramatic singing brought her character to life. Sunanda, the King’s charioteer and servant, was sung by Gregory Smith, a tenor with a strong stage presence and flawless acting.
The highly anticipated elephant did not appear after all; insurmountable logistical problems were cited as the reason. It was probably all for the best as the stage sets were bulky, yet serviceable, and left little room for a large pachyderm.
Opera Vista has filled an un-filled niche in the very crowded Houston opera scene with its focus on living composers and new opera. Part of Opera Vista’s mission is to “establish and develop an audience for new opera through interaction with the community in an effort to expose the ‘uninitiated’ to a new and unexplored art form.” This part of the mission looks like Mission Accomplished to me.