The grandiosity of opera culture—the stars, the spectacle, the stage machinery—often obscures the form itself, which depends on the fine details of things like harmony, dynamics, and individual performances to succeed.
The great value in small opera companies like On Site Opera is in their smaller scale, and how chamber sized productions are all about intimate details and nuances. With On Site Opera, those all take on a greater significance because the company’s purpose is not to bring audiences into an opera house, but to bring opera to people, wherever they might be able to stage a performance.
On Site got their new season started early Friday afternoon in just such a fashion: their latest production, the world premiere of Lisa DeSpain’s Song of the Nightingale, debuted in the outdoor public courtyard at Brooklyn Commons, the first in a series of free performances open to the public (and the elements). The opera was commissioned and produced by On Site Opera and Brookfield Properties Arts & Culture.
The results were impressive all around. DeSpain’s opera is a graceful, elegantly crafted piece for a cast of five singers, a modern fairy tale about the collision between contemporary materialism and nature. It bears no relation to Stravinsky’s Chant du Rossignol other than sharing the songbird as a subject and being full of melodies. Outdoor performances are already difficult, so the energy, concentration, and skill of the singers when it was 89º (with dense humidity), and the five-piece ensemble conducted by Geoffrey McDonald was near unbelievable.
The opera, with a libretto by Melisa Tien, opens with The Collector (mezzo Chrystal E. Williams) and The Curator (tenor Bernard Holcomb), discussing her desires. She relies on him for taste, he relies on her for money—the sweetness of the music belies their toxic codependency. The music is highly lyrical throughout, so even when the Williams sang lines like “Everything wants to be gathered,” the sound of it makes her nearly sympathetic.
But this is a fairy tale, after all. The two head out to the woods in search of a “famous performer,” enchanted by the sounds of nature. They run into the Frog (soprano Nicole Haslett, in costume designer Kara Harmon’s smart outfit of green hiking vest and backpack canteen) and the Cow (bass-baritone Eliam Ramos), and eventually find The Nightingale (soprano Hannah Cho). They convince the Nightingale to come to the Collector’s home as a featured performer. As beautifully as she sings—and Cho was ringing and expressive in the character’s two enchanting arias—the city is not for her.
She is rescued by Frog and Cow, the former disguising herself as a mechanical, singing statue, who with the press of a button delivers “I sing for you / I sing for me / I sing this tune / For all eternity.” This ditty is one of the subtle strengths of the opera, it’s pretty but it eventually, and convincingly, grows jejune for the Collector, who realizes the emptiness of her pursuit (the Curator himself leaves the city for the woods, and happiness).
DeSpain’s new opera hit all the marks with a fine shape and pace, and a chorus at the end that wrapped it all up in satisfying fashion. Performing in the round, all the singers were terrific, projecting through the elements via Beth Lake’s fine sound design, with excellent articulation and an unflagging feeling of fun and joy. This all happens at close quarters, and director Katherine M. Carter had the cast moving fluidly about and around the crushed gravel circle and the central tree (McDonald himself was peeking around the trees to throw cues to the singers).
This was a winning combination of a score that was a pleasure because of its modesty and direct communication, a skillful cast that brought out every last bit of feeling and loveliness in the music, and On Site Opera’s intelligence, flexibility, and commitment to engage the public.
Song of the Nightingale will be repeated 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Saturday in Brooklyn Commons; September 21-23 at Manhattan West; and September 28-30 at Brookfield Place. brookfieldproperties.com