CHICAGO OPERA THEATER PRESENTS
“THE SCARLET IBIS”
FEBRUARY 16, 21 AND 24 AT HISTORIC STUDEBAKER THEATER
“THE SCARLET IBIS”
FEBRUARY 16, 21 AND 24 AT HISTORIC STUDEBAKER THEATER
Operatic Adaptation of James Hurst’s 1960 Short Story Premieres in Chicago Having Received Rave Reviews at 2015 Prototype Festival
By Catherine Hellmann
Oh, how I love this city! On my way to the Studebaker Studio in the Fine Arts Building the other night, a sweet violinist on the street helped steer me in the right direction on Michigan Avenue. “What show are you seeing? The symphony?” No, Chicago Opera Theater. She was in the orchestra at the Auditorium for the Joffrey Ballet and said it is an amazing show. Ahhhh...so much culture in our world-class town. We are so spoiled.
The Chicago premiere of the contemporary opera The Scarlet Ibis was composed by Stefan Weisman with a libretto by David Cote. According to their press release: “Chicago Opera Theater presents the first full production of this operatic adaptation of James Hurst’s 1960 short story (apart from its festival debut), featuring the artistry of stage director Elizabeth Margolius and conductor David Hanlon. The opera stars Annie Rosen (who also performed in COT’s season-opening production of “Iolanta”) as Brother and Jordan Rutter as Doodle.”
Annie Rosen, mezzo-soprano, is amazing in the trouser role of Brother. Big Brother is the one who gives baby William his new nickname of “Doodle,” short for “Doodle Bug,” since the baby moves backwards. The opera opens with the mom in childbirth; Quinn Middleman sings her shrieks as the contractions continue on. William is a difficult birth, a tiny baby, and handicapped. However, he is born with a caul, “which is cut from Jesus’ nightgown,” according to his superstitious aunt. (A sheer curtain falls from the ceiling during the childbirth scene, representing the caul, which is a clever bit of staging.) It is believed that the caul will give him special abilities. Auntie is sung by a true contralto, Sharmay Musacchio, who hits the lowest notes I have ever heard from a woman. There is a great line where she insists the baby will be a boy because the mom is “carrying low, low, looooww,” with her voice hitting descending notes, playing a musical joke, resonating in that deep register.
Because he is a sickly child, William is not expected to live. In a heartbreaking scene, his father, played by Bill McMurray, mourns his newborn as he constructs a small coffin. McMurray is so affecting in the role that his grief really moved me.
But Wiliam not only survives, he thrives, under the guidance of his big brother. Doodle initially seems cognitively impaired. Until the day he gives Brother a huge smile; then big brother joyfully realizes “he’s all there.” Doodle is sung by countertenor Jordan Rutter. His voice is so high, I assumed the singer must be another woman in a pants role. Then I squinted at my program and saw the head shot showed a man with a beard. Wow. Having the two extremes of vocal ranges is unusual. The composer explains in the program that he wanted Doodle’s voice to sound “otherworldly” and “the female voices would be set lower than Doodle’s to allow his lines to soar above them all.”
The relationship between the brothers is so love-hate and typical. Doodle adores Brother. There are times when Brother is so big-brother mean to little Doodle, like calling him a “crippled runt,” that I wanted Doddle to thump her with his cane!
But Doodle has too pure a heart. And he is too good for this world.
My Best Pal Mary had her reservations about the show based on the premise, but she fell in love with this unique production, as did I.
We later ran into the singer who played Auntie on Michigan Avenue. (great place to find musicians, apparently) “Weren’t you the aunt in the opera?” I called out. “Yes, I was,” replied Ms. Musacchio. She was gracious enough to stop and chat a couple minutes. I told her that she had that incredible low voice. She thanked me and said audiences don’t get to hear contraltos very often...or countertenors, either.
“Oh, a countertenor is like a unicorn!” I gushed. She laughed and agreed. They are just so rare.
Ms. Musacchio said she is from California but likes Chicago. She also said the entire cast is very tight, and it is “like a family” with Chicago Opera Theater. She had never experienced that kind of a closeness before.
What can I say? We live in a world-class city with fabulous arts and friendly folks. I can't imagine being anywhere else.
Catherine Hellmann usually wins at “Three Truths and a Lie” because she really did walk 60 miles in three days (Avon Breast Cancer Walk), met Senator-Elect Barack Obama in the park, and sang twice at Carnegie Hall. She is a teacher by day and theater junkie by night. Her favorite job ever was leading tours at Wrigley Field
Chicago Opera Theater (COT) continues its 2018/2019 season with the Chicago premiere of the contemporary opera “The Scarlet Ibis.” Composed by Stefan Weisman with libretto by David Cote, “The Scarlet Ibis” was declared an “outstanding new chamber opera” by David Allen of The New York Times upon its debut at the 2015 Prototype Festival. Chicago Opera Theater presents the first full production of this operatic adaptation of James Hurst’s 1960 short story (apart from its festival debut), featuring the artistry of stage director Elizabeth Margolius and conductor David Hanlon. The opera stars Annie Rosen (who also performed in COT’s season-opening production of “Iolanta”) as Brother and Jordan Rutter as Doodle.
The opening night and press performance takes place Saturday, February 16 at 7:30 p.m. at the Studebaker Theater (410 S. Michigan Ave.) Additional performances will take place Thursday, February 21 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, February 24 at 3 p.m.
That same week, COT will present a week-long workshop culminating in the first full concert performance of “The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing” by composer Justine F. Chen and librettist David Simpatico as part of Chicago Opera Theater’s Vanguard Initiative to promote the creation of new opera.
“COT’s mission to support the creation of new operatic work is exemplified in our February programming, with the first production of ‘The Scarlet Ibis’ since its debut at the 2015 Prototype Festival, and the first concert performance of ‘The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing’ as part of our Vanguard Initiative,” said Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson General Director Douglas R. Clayton. “COT is proud to provide an opportunity for Chicago to see such new and exquisite operas for the first time.”
“It’s thrilling to see ‘The Scarlet Ibis’ picked up for a second production following its premiere at our Prototype Festival,” said co-producer Beth Morrison. “Chicago Opera Theater is a forward thinking opera company, truly embodying what a 21st century opera company should be.”
Composer Stefan Weisman spoke to the development process of the opera stating, “One element of creating this opera that felt really unique was that the two leads are a countertenor and mezzo-soprano, both high voices for male characters. And they are played by two different genders. We are playing around with traditional notions of gender and power—the weaker of the two is the male singer, and the stronger is the female singer.”
Librettist David Cote continued, “The story is very much in the tradition of Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, even William Faulkner. The language is lush and flowery, the emotions run high and the ending is both beautiful and tragic. I’m not a Southerner, I grew up in small-town New Hampshire, but I drew on memories of living near a lake and playing in the woods to create the sense of nature and wonder in the opera.”
In addition to Rosen and Rutter, “The Scarlet Ibis” cast includes Quinn Middleman as Mother, Sharmay Musacchio as Aunt Nicey, Bill McMurray as Father and dancer Ginny Ngo.
Creative Team for The Scarlet Ibis
Composer: Stefan Weisman
Librettist: David Cote
Conductor: David Hanlon
Stage Director: Elizabeth Margolius
Lighting Design: Charlie Cooper
Scenic Design: Jack Magaw
Costume Design: Brenda Winstead
About Stefan Weisman
Stefan Weisman’s music has been described as "personal, moody and skillfully wrought" (The New York Times). His compositions include chamber, orchestral, theater, dance and choral pieces, and he has specialized in vocal works that explore edgy and compelling topics. His operas include “Darkling” (American Opera Projects), “Fade” (Second Movement), and “The Scarlet Ibis” (produced by HERE and Beth Morrison Projects and premiered in the 2015 PROTOTYPE opera festival). He is a graduate of Bard College (BA), Yale University (MA), and Princeton University (PhD). Presently, he is on the faculty of the Bard High School Early College in Queens, New York.
About David Cote
David Cote is a playwright, librettist and arts journalist based in New York City. His operas include “Three Way” with composer Robert Paterson (Nashville Opera and BAM); “The Scarlet Ibis” (Prototype Festival) and “Fade” with Stefan Weisman. Other works include his plays “Otherland” and “Fear of Art;” song cycle with Paterson, “In Real Life;” choral works with Paterson, “Did You Hear?” and “Snow Day.” Cote was born and adopted in New Hampshire and is a proud alum of Bard College. His fellowships include The MacDowell Colony, and he is a member of the New York Drama Critics Circle, ASCAP and the Dramatists Guild.
About David Hanlon
David Hanlon is a composer, conductor and pianist praised by Maestro Patrick Summers as “one of the major compositional voices of the young generation.” He has often written work for Houston Grand Opera, including his chamber opera “Past the Checkpoints” about undocumented immigrants, the chamber vocal piece “The Ninth November I Was Hiding,” about his grandfather's arrest during Kristallnacht and “Power,” based on a text by a high-schooler about bullying. Hanlon was recently commissioned by the Opera For All Voices consortium to write a new chamber opera with librettist Stephanie Fleischmann, and recently conducted the premiere of his and Fleischmann's chamber opera “After the Storm” at Houston Grand Opera.
About Elizabeth Margolius
Elizabeth Margolius is a Chicago-based Joseph Jefferson Award-nominated stage and movement director with a primary focus in developing and directing new and rarely produced music theater, operetta and opera. Margolius’ Chicago and regional stage and movement directorial credits include “Miss Holmes” for Peninsula Players, “Machinal” for Greenhouse Theater, “The Bridges of Madison County” for Peninsula Players, “The Boy Who Grew Too Fast” for SUNY/Albany Opera Program and “Uncle Philip’s Coat” for Greenhouse Theater. Margolius has been a guest director, master artist and guest/adjunct lecturer at numerous colleges, universities and festivals including the University of Nebraska, DePaul University and SUNY Albany.
About Chicago Opera Theater
Chicago Opera Theater (COT) is a nationally recognized opera company based in Chicago, now in its 45th season. COT expands the tradition of opera as a living art form, with an emphasis on Chicago premieres, including new contemporary operas for a 21st century audience.
In addition to its programmed mainstage season, COT is devoted to the development and production of new opera in the United States through the Vanguard Initiative, launched in the Spring of 2018. The Vanguard Initiative mentors emerging opera composers, invests time and talent in new opera at various stages of the creative process and presents the Living Opera Series to showcase new and developing work.
Since its founding in 1973 by Alan Stone, COT has staged more than 125 operas, including over 65 Chicago premieres and more than 35 operas by American composers.
COT is led by Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson General Director Douglas R. Clayton and Orli and Bill Staley Music Director Lidiya Yankovskaya. As of fall 2018, Maestro Yankovskaya is the only woman with the title Music Director at any of the top 50 opera companies in the United States. COT currently performs at the Studebaker Theater (Michigan & Congress) and the Harris Theater for Music & Dance (Michigan & Randolph).
For more information on the Chicago Opera Theater and its programs please visit chicagooperatheater.org.