Angel’s Share 2018-19 Season Review: Gregg Kallor’s ‘Sketches from Frankenstein’
Powerful Opera in the Catacombs of The Green-Wood CemeteryBy Matt Costello
What has been the most unusual venue you’ve ever been to for an operatic performance? Have one in mind? Great. Well, in a few moments, I will describe mine, from this past Friday, October 12, 2018.
Unison Media, a company promoting and curating very different classical music events, teamed up with – if one can use such a cavalier expression – the famous Green-wood Cemetery in the heart of Brooklyn. The musical series dubbed, perhaps in honor of the dead, “The Angel’s Share.”
The goal: to present distinctive, unique musical experiences in the settings of the cemetery. It is, by the way, something to see. The towering gothic entrance gate for the cemetery, which was incorporated 1838, is fabulously ornate and immense. One could easily expect a thriving castle of vampires on the other side.
As the series neared the end of its first season, using different areas of the cemetery, Angel Share’s curator Andrew Ousley – perhaps in keeping with the Halloween season – decided to present something thematically apt, visually stunning, and definitely of musical interest to any opera fan.
The concert was held inside the cemetery’s catacombs. And if you have not been in a catacomb lately, it is an above-ground tomb hiding different vaults. Yes, there are rooms filed with the remains of families long gone.
Now picture that setting, lined with so many candles to make it look both mysterious and magical. “Haunting” barely captures the look. Chairs lined up, two by two as in the fuselage of an airplane, running from the front of the catacomb where – I imagine – an altar once sat. But that area is now home to a clever platform for performing, complete with subtle professional lighting effects.
And the performance? I did say apt…
For three nights, the candle-lit catacombs were home to – most prominently – a performance of Gregg Kallor’s “Sketches from Frankenstein.” Designed as scenes from an opera in progress, the extended sketches featured Victor Frankenstein, his fiancé, and the creation he made — the so-called monster, whom people often incorrectly call “Frankenstein.”
Kallor’s text focused on the struggle for kindness and compassion on the part of the creature, ultimately focused on his fierce demand that Frankenstein must create a mate, a female creature like itself, a creature who would not — as human society does — run in horror from his image.
The extended section closes with a foreshadowing of both the doom and death that awaits Dr. Frankenstein on his wedding night, where he will pay a terrible price, with his own bride, for not agreeing to his creation’s demand.
Haunting Cello & Piano
To the music then. The score of these sketches was modern, edgy, well-matched to the subject matter, while not being chaotically 12-tone. The cello, played with a warm beauty by Joshua Roman, echoed the sung pleas of both the creature and the cornered Frankenstein. You can imagine what that wonderful instrument sounded like in the stone chambers.
And the composer played the piano part, his technique itself dazzling as he kept the propulsive, fierce music racing to match the emotional intensity of the dramatic scenes being played, both on the stage area, and even amidst the audience itself.
Quite something. The singers also reveled in the drama and the sheer sonority of the piece.
When Frankenstein, well portrayed by Brian Cheney, comes racing from the rear, flashlight searching, we all know who – or what – he is looking for.
But then — just to my right actually — the creature suddenly emerges from a vault. Hulking, hooded, its face a whitish, ghoulish mask. Joshua Jeremiah sang the bravura role with a power that could sear. He also grew plaintive as he vacillated from pleading with his creator to threatening him. The catacombs were filed with Jeremiah’s terrifically subtle and powerful baritone. He performed the creature wonderfully, drawing immediate empathy, even showing a nobility.
For a long stretch, it didn’t seem as Frankenstein himself was to sing, just essentially recoil from his monster. But Cheney eventually does engage in the debate, trying to refuse the terrible task of making yet another monster, simply so his first creation could know compassion, perhaps even love.
Cheney’s ringing tenor voice carried well in the stone catacombs, conveying the fear that the deep bass sound of the monster summoned. And as the section of sketches went on, Cheney’s voice bloomed to match the action and threats of the creature.
And when the creature finally leaves, Cheney is joined by soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano as his soon-to-be bride, Elizabeth. They share a rich duet affirming their love, their commitment. And yet — from the back where the audience sat — the creation grimly looked on, darkly promising to also be there at that wedding night. It was a chilling moment. Cano, who was to return for a second piece, sang with a sweetness and innocence, and also with a force that filled the candle-lit chambers.
Though these were only sketches from a work in progress by Kallor, the scenes selected – such as Cano’s soaring duet with Cheney – hit the key turning points of Mary Shelley’s classic novel.
And then, on the ominous note of the creation grimly waiting for that wedding night, the cello echoing his solemn, powerful threat, “I’ll be there,” the piece ended. And oddly, for a place filled with, well, lots of people who are no longer with us, great applause ensued.
Tell-Tale Heart & Remembering a Legend
Before continuing, the composer talked about the work just experienced, how excited he was to share these sections. And how the warm reaction will inspire him as he works on the full opera.
This was followed by a piano-only piece, Kallor’s salute to Leonard Bernstein in this, Lenny’s Centennial year. Bernstein, who is buried in Green-wood, was memorialized in a short, breezy piece that while, very much in Kallor’s style, also cleverly weaved in moments that recalled bits of Lenny’s best.
The evening then closed with a solo piece, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, returning to perform Kallor’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Knowing this Poe tale so well from my oratory days, where it was a standard in competition, I really focused on Cano’s portrayal.
As directed by Sarah Meyers, Cano’s crazed killer had a subtlety, a reality as she progresses from obsession to plans, and finally to murder. It was a demanding tour-de-force, all ably handled, though perhaps Caro’s truly powerful mezzo was — at times — little too forte in the cloistered space of the catacombs.
Still, I found the retelling — and Cano’s amazing shifts in tone, as click-by-click she descended into madness, absolutely riveting. Opera can often struggle to be drama, but that was certainly not the case here, but quite the opposite.
The lighting by Tialoc Lopez-Waterman provided dramatic shifts during the two operatic pieces, especially effective at the end of “The Tell-Tale Heart” when the front stage area became bathed in blood red.
It’s my guess that everyone in attendance came away from this night feeling that this had been an extraordinary experience. And that’s not even mentioning, it all started with a whiskey tasting, just an hour before attendees boarded a trolley to wind its way through the now-dark cemetery.
The night I was there, the evening was perfect, starlit sky beautifully clear, a sliver of a moon in the sky and the Manhattan skyline in the distance.
But when I spoke to the curator Andrew Ousley, he said that the two nights previous – with the rain plummeting down as the Frankenstein scenes began, moodily hitting the glass porthole skylights above the catacombs – were “magnificent.”
And when the standing ovation ended, people could stroll back to the main gate, a distance away, the path marked by flaming tiki lamps, past who-knows-what famous deceased New Yorkers, while others could take that trolley back down.