Bare Opera Holds its Season Opening Gala Concert with Selections from Thomas Cabaniss’ ‘FireSongs’ and Opera Favorites

By Chris Ruel
Photo: Gustavo Mirabile

New York City-based alternative opera company, Bare Opera, opened its 2022 season with a gala at The Green Room 42 in Manhattan on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022.

This small, plucky company is making waves as it creates immersive opera experiences for all audiences; 360° of Opera honored Bare Opera by naming it Best Independent Opera Company of 2020. During the pandemic, Bare Opera joined the Decameron Opera Coalition, with one of the company’s commissioned productions, “The Late Walk,” part of “Tales from a Safe Distance,” being added to a Library of Congress collection of works created during the pandemic.

Bare Opera’s season-opening fête celebrated these milestones, along with the company’s return to live performance. But the focal point of the evening was a foretaste of composer Thomas Cabaniss’ new song cycle, “FireSongs.” Bookending Cabaniss’ showcase were opera hits by Offenbach and Verdi.

“The entire point of this is to come together as a musical community and to raise money for the big thing that is happening in June of this year; we will be part of National Sawdust programming—which is a big deal—performing [the world premiere of] Thomas Cabaniss’ ‘FireSongs,'” said Kirsten Scott, Bare Opera’s General Director and Co-founder, who hosted the event with verve and a delightful sense of humor, while beaming with pride about all the company has accomplished since its founding in 2014.

On June 18, 2022, Bare Opera will present two fully staged shows featuring Cabaniss’ “FireSongs” at New York’s newly opened Chelsea Factory. The venue is working with several arts organizations, including National Sawdust. Creative Director Malena Dayen and Music Director David Rosenmeyer are heading up the production, featuring theatrical elements not typically seen in art song performances.

“We’re working with interactive lighting and a choreographer … and we’re really excited to show you a different take of what a song cycle can be in a space where the singers are moving and not stationary, even when not singing,” said Dayen.

The musical performances at the Gala began with soprano Maria Brea and mezzo-soprano Dayen singing Offenbach’s “Barcarole,” with Bare’s co-founder, Laetitia Ruccolo, at the piano. While this is not a review of the show, Brea and Dayen entranced and transported the audience into a dreamscape of sound.

Cabaniss then took the stage and spoke about his work, saying, “[‘FireSongs’] is a set of songs performed by eight singers, string quartet, percussion, and piano. [The songs] relate thematically, with four different sections. It starts with ‘Openings,’ then there are the FireSongs which are at the heart of it. There is a section called ‘Isolation,’ [comprising] songs written during the pandemic, and then ‘Rebirth,’ at the end. The Finale is a piece based on a poem by Mark Strand, called ‘The End,’ and that’s where the entire ensemble comes together.”

The Gala’s “FireSong” preview included four songs, with pianist David Rosenmeyer accompanying. The first, “She rested by the broken brook,” is based on a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson and was performed by Cabaniss himself. (Admirably, too!)

Following was a piece based on a poem by Tracy K. Smith, the former United States Poet Laureate, and sung by Dayen.

“I just love her work,” Cabaniss said of Smith. “Her most recent collection is called ‘Such Color,’ and it includes a poem called ‘An old story.’ I love this poem in part because, as I read it, I thought about going through something cataclysmic, like we have, and then coming out of it. The poem captures that in a very beautiful way.”

Cabaniss next introduced ‘”When I loved you,” with text by Walt Hudgins, a former professor of philosophy at Wofford College (Cabaniss’ alma mater). The composer collaborated on many songs. Satin-smooth tenor Chanan Ben Simone performed the piece.

The “FireSong” preview concluded with “Peace is mine,” sung by the thrilling soprano Shanelle Valerie Woods. Cabaniss explained the bittersweet genesis of the song. The work was a collaboration between The Philadelphia Orchestra and a senior center in Camden, New Jersey. There, the composer met Evelyn Lowe, and together, they worked on a piece using the text from the one poem Lowe wrote. Sadly, Lowe became seriously ill and passed away before ever hearing the final piece; however, her family was present at the premiere. Woods’ touching performance was the preview’s icing on the cake.

Bare Opera’s Gala ended with the famous “Traviata” brindisi, “Libiamo, libiamo ne’ lieti calici,” with Scott (mezzo-soprano) singing Alfredo’s part, and soprano Maria Brea that of Violetta. With so many singers in the audience, Scott asked all to join in on the chorus. (Singalongs are a Bare Opera staple.) As a writer and not a singer, I lent a mediocre baritone hum while taking in the glorious and joyful sound that only live voices can bring. Remaining true to its goals, Bare Opera put on an immersive and fun celebratory evening as it heads into an exciting sixth season.