Emerging Artists Theatre 2022 Review: Felix Jarrar’s Halloween One-act Opera Festival

Jarrar Packs An Evening of Three One-Act Operas

By Chris Ruel

It’s that spooky time of the year with Halloween around the corner, and never one to pass up presenting holiday specials, composer/pianist Felix Jarrar put on an extravaganza of creepiness with his Halloween One-act Opera Festival, which took place at Emerging Artists Theatre on Oct. 21, 2022.

Jarrar showcased three of his most macabre operas, with two inspired by the stories of the master of fright, Edgar Allan Poe; a new art song, “The Tree: An Old Man’s Story,” with text by Thomas Hardy, and “Patience & Pearl,” featuring text by librettist Bea Goodwin.

Whether for an irreverent presentation of Handel’s “Messiah” or a more reserved evening of art song, Jarrar’s programming for his concerts is well thought out and engaging. Most recently, he presented a concert of song revolving around the story of Queen Mary, co-programmed with soprano Michele Trovato, which comprised original Jarrar pieces with works by Schumann.

In the review of “We’ve Come to Claim the Throne,” OperaWire pointed to how Jarrar’s music tests singers. His composition’s tessitura lives in the extremes. Jarrar has compiled a diverse roster of fine young New York vocalists who have met the challenges of his works, and he continues discovering hidden jewels within the city’s classical vocal scene.

For his Halloween One-act Festival, the composer tapped tenors Douglas Sabo and Dan Kamalic, baritones Miguel Angel Vasquez and Harrison Singer, and sopranos Katy Lindhart and Natalie Polito to sing his compact early horror anthology.

A High Tree

The evening opened with “The Tree: An Old Man’s Story,” a new song by Jarrar, with text by Thomas Hardy and performed by Douglas Sabo. The song is a perfect example of the challenges Jarrar poses. Sabo dealt with a high tessitura … a cappella. The song wasn’t short, with its length closing in on 10 minutes. This was music for brave singers unafraid of being utterly “naked.”

No one was directing, allowing the tenor to make the piece their own. Sabo took the work at a slow, dirge-like pace. The music had a plainchant sound, visually amplified by Sabo “reading” from a small book, glancing several times at its pages. Score reference, prop, or both, the book was an effective atmospheric device.

Sabo sang well but was unsteady at the top—the sound was thinner, more elusive, though the phrasing and emotion never lacked. There was intention within his voice through the most challenging sections and a commitment to his role as the Old Man. This kept the performance engaging and meaningful.

Beware of Those Offering Amontillado

One of Jarrar’s most recent operas, “The Cask of Amontillado,” based on the short story by Poe, is a clever adaptation and reduction that doesn’t sacrifice the sense of horror within the longer story.

For those who may not remember or know the story, it occurs during a carnival in an unnamed Italian town. Montresor, a wealthy individual, believes his hard-drinking friend Fortunato has wronged him. Fortunato is anything but fortunate when Montresor takes revenge by offering his friend delicious Amontillado tucked away in the vaults of his villa. Montresor dishes out his vengeance by chaining and then walling Fortunato off within a vault, leaving him to die a horrible death only slightly better than being buried alive.

Jarrar served as composer and librettist of this haunting opera, which was first released as a streaming video during the pandemic. Having seen both the filmic and black box staging, each has its strengths and weaknesses. The streaming version was more visually appealing but lacked the magic of live performance. In contrast, the live show left a lot more to the imagination, allowing those in the seats to conjure up terrifying images of someone watching each course of bricks climb until fully ensconced within the wall for all time.

Tenor Dan Kamalic and baritone Miguel Angel Vasquez performed the roles of Montresor and Fortunato, respectively. As Montresor, Kamalic was creepy without being cartoonish. His voice is silver-toned, and for this role, he produced a darker sound.

Vasquez entertained as he displayed Fortunato’s frivolity, while his baritone sound was anything but. His voice is deep and smooth and does all right in the higher register, though it’s not a place he’d necessarily want to hang out, and neither would the audience want him there once they get a taste of the richness of his sweet spot.

It was fate that he was on stage; Vasquez was a jump-in for the baritone initially slated for the role, who, unfortunately, contracted Covid. He sang it cold with the score close at hand. Jarrar has worked with Vasquez before and knows his capabilities. Slotting him into the role at the last minute was an excellent call.

You Never Pay Attention to Me

Poe’s short story “The Oval Portrait” relates the story of a drug-addled artist who became so consumed with painting his wife’s portrait that he completely forgot she was sitting for him. Weeks pass. When the painter completes the picture, he turns to his wife, only to find her dead.

The micro-opera has one role, that of the painter, which baritone Harrison Singer sang. The baritone entered from the wing, stumbling, with his hair unkempt and his shirt askew as he gazed at the portrait and recounted the mad tale. Jarrar focused on the painter, as opposed to the narrator of Poe’s story, who reads the painter’s account from an old book. Staging the opera from the narrator’s point of view would be nothing but a dramatic reading.

Singer’s baritone is smokier and lighter than Vasquez’s. The tessitura wasn’t as extreme as “The Tree,” but there were tenuous and occasional gravelly moments. These aside, Singer showed himself to be a convincing actor and, like Dan Kamalic’s Montresor, was spiced with menace. The baritone had fans in the seats, and they, along with the rest of the house, gave him deserved applause. Should Jarrar cast him in the future, it will be interesting to hear him break out the pipes. “The Oval Portrait,” like “The Tree,” was an introspective piece that kept things subdued.

Tell Me What to Write

The last opera of Jarrar’s Halloween one-act festival was a collaboration between Jarrar and librettist Bea Goodwin. Of the three operas, “Patience & Pearl” is the most light-hearted. Goodwin has a keen knack for finding wonderfully obscure “true” stories. “Patience & Pearl” is one of those.

Around 1916, Pearl Lenore Curran began channeling Patience Worth, a Nantucket settler from the 17th century and a solid writer. Patience’s spirit would tell Pearl what to write via an Ouija Board. By the time Pearl died of pneumonia in 1937, the “duo” had toured cities, showing how Patience had communicated using the board as her stardom grew and grew. Together, they wrote several novels, short stories, and poems, but Patience took the credit. Critics hailed her work, and the Joint Committee of Literary Arts of New York named her one of 1918’s outstanding authors. For a non-existent author, Patience was more than successful.

Sopranos Katy Lindhart and Natalie Polito sang the roles of Patience and Pearl, respectively. Patience appeared in a severe black dress while Pearl wore sparkly sneakers and fluorescent colors and wrote with a ridiculous pen with a Muppet-hair top. Patience would whisper in Pearl’s ear, and she’d hastily scribble what the spirit dictated. Lindhart, as Patience, had a solid stage presence and sang well throughout her range with nice top notes. Polito has a similar voice, bright and big, but darker.

“Patience & Pearl” is a lyrical piece with nods to classical composers sprinkled throughout, the best example being Patience’s entrance, for which Jarrar alluded to the Queen of the Night aria, which was fitting, given the opera’s supernatural nature. While there were no high F’s, the sopranos spent a fair amount of time high on the staff and beyond.

Closing Thoughts

Jarrar spent the evening accompanying and directing from the piano. These were his notes, his tempos, his dynamics, and being the composer, they were played and observed with care and nuance. Alongside Jarrar, Chloe Kim accompanied on the violin. Kim’s playing was a highlight. Jarrar writes prolifically, penning a full catalog of art songs, so much of the time it’s solo piano accompaniment. There was a lot for Kim to work with, from geometric stabs to light plucking to wicked tremolo. She and Jarrar were in sync with no noticeable missteps from either. They were a good team and the violin was a pleasant addition.

Felix Jarrar’s Halloween One-act Opera Festival was a treat.


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