Tucked away in the Legendary Greenwich Village gay bar, Stonewall, the New York premiere of “Sweets by Kate” was being held. The opera was not only making a New York premiere but it was also the first opera with lesbian protagonists to be shown at the historic LGBT monument.
OperaRox Productions, an underground, indie opera company founded by mezzo-soprano Kim Feltkamp, seeks to be a leader in making new, groundbreaking opera that exposes the art form to young, desirable audiences.
“Sweets by Kate” seems to be a story centered around the bakeshop of a lesbian couple, making Stonewall a potentially ideal location for the event. However, with the opening notes of the overture and lack of balance in the sound of the piano trio and the singers, it was apparent that it may not have been the best venue. There were many moments where the text was inaudible, at least towards the back of the crowded barroom. Unfortunately, the titles to the English production were far off to the right of the stage and discovered too late past the opening scene while trying to bob between seated heads to catch the action on stage.
The story, while named after the owner of the bakeshop, appears to be centered around the evil Carl, the devil, whose goal is to secure the title as the bakeshop owner himself through the use of what appears to be a magical potion for failure. The problem, however, was that the 50s setting for the opera failed to set a paranormal tone, making suspension of disbelief for the rest of the evening very difficult.
From the start, the composition comes off as perfectly contemporary, recalling flavors of Adamo’s “Little Woman.” Though twenty minutes into the opera, it became apparent that there was little variation in the score, save for a couple attempts at 50s Doo-wop, making for a night of opera that dragged painfully on.
However, there were some moments that kept the evening light in particularly the quartet in Act one where the village women gossip about Elizabeth’s arrival. And Act two brought a couple of notable departures from the flat-lining drone of the score. One moment in the opera was Kate’s and Elizabeth’s respective arias. These two pieces added dramatic texture to the piece and even gave hints of what composer Griffin Candey can do in his future works. But the changes came far too late to the suffering party.
With a trio of characters in principal roles, the lesbian couple and the devil, it was interesting that the only character that begged for our concern was the assistant, Doofey, who came onto the stage with an obvious mission. Played by baritone Keith Browning, his natural comedic timing and hearty voice focused the attention of wandering minds back to the stage. His delivery of the text was a mix of singing and straight speaking but it added to the character and his comical decisions throughout the work.
The three leads, Kim Feltkamp (Elizabeth), Emily Kate Naydeck (Kate) and Brandon Evans (Carl), despite the floundering material, brought their obviously pleasing voices and showmanship to the four-person wide stage. Feltkamp sang an affecting Act two aria letting out her full lyric mezzo while Naydeck showcased her dramatic forces in the Act two aria. Meanwhile, Evans sang with grace, emphasizing words in a snarky and sly manner. He moved about the stage with an apparent smile as if he always had a plan.
Zoe Marie Hart, Emma Bonanno and Sarah Murcek were comical as the three gossiping ladies while Michael Hoffman portrayed Jo Brigmann with heart.
In the piano trio, Peiharn Chen, Sara Dudley and Spencer Shen played with precision, emphasizing each rhythm written in the score. Cellist Spencer and violinist Dudley also showcased a vocal quality to their playing, employing tasteful portamento in slower passages. However, there was an imbalance at times due to the acoustics of the bar and that sometimes made for unevenness in the sound.
A two-drink minimum served by the waitress ensured a decent night out for the audience, who did enjoy chuckles from puns and word plays sprinkled through the libretto. One such moment came during the quartet with the village women as well as with Doofey’s entrance as he is looking for a job. There was also a moment at the end of the first Act where the devil failed with his magic potion and audiences went hysterical upon seeing the village people succeeding.
The final notes of the night sent Kate and her lover packing, leaving the bakery in the hands of the devil. An attempted cliffhanger struggled in a last-ditch effort to hold our attention, but for all loyal audience members, the bakery would have fared better to have closed up shop for good.
In spite of this uneven work, OperaRox still shows the promise of offering up good, new works. With an obvious amount of good resources at their disposal, New York City’s theater-goers should be excited for what the young, two-year-old company may offer up in the future.