In a politically unsettled time, it’s helpful to have artworks that take on the issues of the day and give us something to think about.
Not In My Town, a new opera by Wilton Manors-based composer Michael W. Ross, is nothing if not politically engaged. The story of the 1998 torture-killing of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, was part of the impetus for a federal hate-crimes law, and his tragic story resonates well in a dramatic context. West Palm Beach-based Opera Fusion gave Ross’s opera its world premiere Saturday night at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, and the relatively large audience at the University Theatre acclaimed it warmly.
Laid out in one act and 13 scenes, and lasting close to two hours Saturday night, the opera covers Shepard’s story from his meeting with Romaine Patterson, a big-hearted lesbian who breaks up a bullying attempt and wins Shepard’s devotion. We meet his parents, Judy and Dennis, who are trying to come to terms with their son’s homosexuality, and learn that Shepard is more interested in socializing than he is studying. He goes to a bar, where he meets the two men who will kill him, and his beating and torture are depicted in a low-light pantomime that ends with him being tied to a fence near Laramie and left there to suffer.
The rest of the opera, whose libretto is also by Ross, focuses on Patterson’s reaction to the death and the good works it inspired. She breaks up a fundamentalist preacher’s anti-gay rally with demonstrators dressed as angels, who use their wings to cover up the hate messages on the protesters’ signs. Patterson accepts her girlfriend Olivia’s proposal of marriage, Shepard’s father allocutes at the trial of his son’s killers, and Patterson begins her activist career with a speech in Washington to the Anti-Defamation League.
Aside from some spiky flavoring in the first minute or so of the overture, the score of Not In My Town is resolutely tonal, and steeped in pop music styles couched in classical Romanticism. Ross aims at big tunes, and gets closest with “The World Is Mine,” a sweeping gay-pride affirmation that is closer to a Broadway number than it is a contemporary opera aria, but Ross feels strongly that this is the most effective language for theater pieces like this.
So the music goes down easy, and is well-crafted for the emotional arcs of the songs, in particular Romaine’s “When Did the World Stop Caring?” and the music of Olivia’s proposal scene. The choral writing is effective, especially in the confrontation scene with Rev. Fred Phelps and the soft singing that accompanies the candlelight vigil after Shepard is killed. Ross’s orchestration, while relatively weak in the overture, is much better in the rest of the opera, and at times the 19-piece orchestra sounded far bigger.
Not In My Town is well-conceived, and the basic premise — that this repugnant crime would make a workable opera — turns out to be broadly true. But there are two downsides. The first one is that this opera was conceived as a didactic work for schoolchildren before it was expanded for Opera Fusion, and it shows. This is a morality play without any nuance; all of the main characters are admirable and blemish-free, and the forces of evil are simply that: Bogeymen who don’t tell us anything about why they’re doing what they’re doing.
It would be far more interesting if we got some insight into the killers, for example, who could give the audience some planning dialogue before the attack, and certainly some after they have tied Shepard to the fence, pulling off his shoes as they leave in a gratuitous bit of cruelty. Or, the opera could allow Phelps to air his apparent belief that Scripture is incompatible with a gay lifestyle — say, in a solo aria before getting his bullhorn and going on down to the protest. One doesn’t have to agree with him, or be sympathetic to the killers, but giving them their say makes for a much more compelling theatrical experience.
And so it follows that a great deal of the music is affirmative and moves along in a confident, unbroken stream. At times it reminded me of nothing so much as one of those effusively Romantic arrangements of the Pachelbel Canon in D, with a short, simple chordal progression returning again and again to the tonic. It gets somewhat tedious — this the second downside — and yet it grows logically out of the way Ross has written his story and his characters. A subtler, more insightful libretto would give Ross a wider opportunity to write more varied music, and that would make Not In My Town far more satisfying.
Soprano Robyn Marie Lamp, as Romaine, had a large and attractive voice, well-suited for her big aria and very useful in combination with those of Olivia and Matthew. In the early going, her voice was pinched in the upper registers, but that cleared up. She seemed a little unsure what to do with her body, perhaps because the real Romaine Patterson was in the audience, only a few rows from the stage. But she came across with warmth and personality (as did Patterson herself, who gave some remarks from the stage before the opera began).
As Matthew, the tenor Ryan Townsend has the same slight build as Shepard did, and he had a restless, nervous energy that was apt for playing the part of a 21-year-old kid. But his voice, while pleasant and very much in the Broadway tradition, was very difficult to hear. Only in his singing with others did it gain the heft it needed for projecting in the University Theatre. He needs a mic, and Opera Fusion might want to consider one for the performances this coming weekend.
Singing the role of Olivia was the second-cast soprano, Cory Shelley, filling in for an indisposed Ravenna Maer. She sang quite well, with a big, friendly voice, and she seemed a good bit more comfortable in her role than Lamp did. Bass-baritone Ardean Landhuis, who was Shepard’s father Dennis, also directed this show and handled its production design, was the finest singer on stage, with a powerful, dark voice that lent real pathos to a man enduring an unimaginable tragedy.
He also made an effective partner with soprano Sarah-Helen Land, who sang the part of Judy. In duet moments, their voices blended admirably, and Land was a believable mother in anguish. In the higher registers, her light, pretty voice got rather wobbly, but that didn’t detract much from her sensitive portrayal.
As the Rev. Phelps, baritone Enrique Estrada sang with force and clarion righteousness, and as the unnamed leader of the LGBT rally, tenor Edgar Miguel Abreu also unleashed serious vocal power.
The orchestra, which had some of the area’s best freelancers in it, was quite good, except for the first few moments of the overture, and conductor Gordon Roberts handled them expertly. And he did a fine job with the vocalists, supporting them every step of the way, and bringing the ensemble way down when a singer needed him to.
Landhuis’s production design, while limited by budget realities, was actually very effective in spite of its modesty. The simple sets of university buildings, a college apartment, a suburban kitchen and a courtroom served their functions well, and at all times, the audience’s attention was directed to where the action was. Landhuis kept his singing actors, including himself, busy but not overly so, which worked well for this score.
The climactic confrontation scene, in which the Rev. Phelps’s anti-gay demonstrators are challenged by Romaine’s Angel activists — people dressed in white sheets with giant wings — is too static and hard to parse. The Angels need to block the reverend’s protesters, covering up their messages or in some way interacting more aggressively with them, so that we feel the drama of the situation as well as understand what is that they’re doing there.
As it stands now, Not In My Town works best as a teaching piece for educational purposes, and in that guise it likely has a good future on the university or secondary school circuit. If Ross wants to make it a mainstage opera for everyone, it will need some dark characters and more musical variety. Nonetheless, Opera Fusion has done a most impressive thing by presenting this new work, cannily taking advantage of the current DIY zeitgeist to mount a serious piece of musical art that does what art does best: Enable all of us to engage in a conversation about the promises and perils of our time.
Not In My Town can be seen at 8 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets are $35, and available through www.operafusion.org or at browardcenter.org.