(Credit: Orlando Mendiola)
Once Upon a Time composer Felix Jarrar examined the life of Kiki de Montparnasse in “Tabula Rasa.” He delved into the dark depths of Edgar Allan Poe’s “House of Usher.” He brought Ebenezer Scrooge out of the darkness and into the light with “A Christmas Carol.” He examined the myth of “Apollo and Hermes.”
But four operas in, Jarrar wanted to make a left turn. So he made a subversive comedic romp.
In many ways, “Mother Goose” was among Jarrar’s earliest creations. The composer had written a short story as a teenager about an inn-keeper named Leonora Goosling in a make-believe land who writes fairy tales about the people that stay at her inn. At that point, he wasn’t composing operas, so the story didn’t advance beyond that point.
But a few years later, in January 2017, the composer was faced with having to figure out what he would create for his capstone project as he took on his Master of Music degree at Brooklyn College. “The Fall of the House of Usher” had been his thesis project for his undergraduate at Marlboro College, so taking on another opera to close out this next phase of his professional education seemed like a solid idea.
Jarrar decided to take a shot at this idea from his teens, writing an opening aria for the Fairy Godmother.
“’Close your eyes’ for the Fairy Godmother, one of the drag roles, and that really inspired me to create the structure and framework for the piece that it became two years later,” he told OperaWire in an interview.
“Mother Goose,” which will make its world premiere on Nov. 21, 2019 at Dixon Place in New York, was officially born.
Too Much Material
“Mother Goose” tells the story of Leonora Goosling, the innkeeper of the Mother Goose Inn and Suites, who is renowned throughout the land of Happily Ever After for her tales. But her latest quest to rescue Princess Talia becomes complicated when the evil witch, Gnat, seeks revenge.
“’Mother Goose’ is truly a drag comic opera. The theme that is at the forefront of this piece is confidence in one’s identity and a belief in the ability to meet goals and achieve one’s aspirations at any cost,” Jarrar noted of the opera’s story. “A lot of the opera is based on LGBTQIA+ culture. The Fairy Godmother and her nemesis, the evil witch Gnat, are dueling drag queens, and the climax of the piece is a diva showdown between the two of them. The humor of the piece and the comedic timing of the libretto is influenced by drag culture.“
And while reimagining fairy tale tropes might not seem all that challenging, Jarrar actually faced one major challenge when he took on the opera – he had more than he could manage.
“I have so much material I generated from writing the initial drafts of this libretto that there’s enough material for two more operas based on all of these characters,” he revealed. “For this work, I had to make sure I was very focused on shaping each character’s journey throughout each scene while still maintaining the integrity of the work’s humor.”
Ultimately, he opted for a “singspiel of sorts,” inserting dialogues in between the arias and ensembles of the work.
“My approach to writing libretti is based heavily on the development of each character throughout the plot,” Jarrar related regarding his process. “I work fastidiously to make sure that text is singable and yet has enough detail to communicate the situation at hand. There are many different layers to the humor of this piece, so I had to be very careful in how I worded certain things.”
But once he had managed to find his style and story, Jarrar noted that “writing this libretto was one of the most artistically rewarding things I have done to date.”
With the dramatic layout of the land established, Jarrar could move on to the part of the process that draws out his greatest strengths – the musical world building.
In hearing Jarrar’s other work, one might find him to be the ultimate chameleon, his musical language blending perfectly with the surrounding text. In “Tabula Rasa,” an opera set in France in the 1920s, jazz came to the forefront. “Fall of the House of Usher” features a more romantic score that suits the horror story by Edgar Allan Poe.
“Mother Goose” is another creature all together and comes off as a culmination of his operatic evolution to date. The composer noted that he was heavily influenced by the likes of Handel, Rossini, and Donizetti in much of the vocal writing; there is a mad scene for the Ugly Duckling, an aspiring popstar overwhelmed by her career.
But he combined this with a more complex language that hints at contemporary pop music, jazz, Stravinskian rhythms, and Messiaenic harmony.
“It’s an amalgamation of a variety of musical influences,” he noted.
Witches & Gooses
With all the workshopping and experimenting that has gone into the creation of “Mother Goose,” Jarrar knew that he had to bring on his collaborators for the work early. Jarrar never needed to think twice about the singers he would write the roles for.
At the center of it all is the titular character of Leonora Goosling, A.K.A. Mother Goose. Jarrar selected mezzo-soprano Allison Gish for the role after having worked with her on “Tabula Rasa.”
“I just simply love her voice and the conviction of her acting. She had an aria in that opera called ‘Wine Mom Song’ – her magnificent performance of that was one of the highlights of the production,” Jarrar noted.
“I definitely relate to Leonora’s can-do attitude and frustration with lazy people, though I do a better job of keeping it to myself, which would make for a boring opera,” Gish noted about the role.
For the other roles, he chose artists that he had previously engaged with on other projects.
As Mother Goose’s arch-nemesis Gnat, Jarrar turned to Marques Hollie, a tenor who appeared in Jarrar’s “Tabula Rasa” in addition to collaborating with him on several concerts.
“Gnat is definitely the villain in this opera, but how outwardly villainous she is is determined by who else is on stage. So I would say the big challenge is creating levels, for lack of a better word, of evil and the underlying motivation(s) behind it,” noted Hollie. “I would say Gnat and I are similar in that, when we have a goal in mind, we will do everything in our power to achieve it!”
But for Jarrar, that drive was not the only thing that made Hollie perfect for the role.
“Marques was born to be an evil drag queen. I love how he gives many levels to his interpretations of my music,” Jarrar noted. “He sang a workshop of my song cycle ‘The Ulster County Songbook’ this past May, and this quality really came through in his performance.”
As his polar opposite is Jonathan Harris, who will take on the role of the Fairy Godmother, another drag queen.
Harris had worked on a number of projects that involved some drag, as well as others that he would consider “drag-adjacent.” One such example that he cited was playing Frank-N-Furter in “The Rocky Horror Show.” But he had never actually gotten the opportunity to be a drag queen in the truest sense.
However, for Harris the experience has been exciting and fun.
“I tend to be pretty reserved in my daily life, and the Fairy Godmother is certainly anything but. So in that sense, we couldn’t be more different,” he noted. “At the same time, though, once the dress, heels, and makeup are on, she just emerges, so I can’t really say that she’s different from me at all. She’s definitely been in there all along, some less expressed but no less innate part of my personality.”
Princesses & Divas
Sopranos Rebecca Richardson and Victoria Davis were cast as two princesses at the core of the story. Both recently performed alongside Jarrar in a recital entitled “An Evening of Two Queens.”
“Becky and Victoria are two of my favorite sopranos and people to collaborate with,” Jarrar enthused. “I absolutely love their voices. There is a lovely chemistry between them while they are acting – it’s perfect for Princess Talia and Princess Todger Dodger!”
“Felix is amazing,” added Davis. “I’ve always loved working with him. In my head (and in real life) I call him my Beethoven, because of his passion (and hair). You won’t get to work with someone as amazing and kind as he so I count myself blessed. He’s a wonderful musician, composer and friend. I’m honored to be apart of his artistry!”
Davis takes on the part of Prince Leicester, but in typical Jarrarian subversion, that title is but a ruse for the character’s true identity – Princess Elesbian Beth Todger Dodger of the Land of Kitty Punching. Her goal is to awaken her beloved Princess Talia, who is often better known in fairy tale land as Sleepy Beauty.
“Princess Talia (aka Sleeping Beauty) is someone who has never had to problem solve or endured any challenging experiences and is exceptionally out of touch,” Richardson, who starred in Jarrar’s “Tabula Rasa” as noted. “She has lived a very charmed life without having to question or overcome any major obstacles, and the ordeal of being kidnapped (twice) ends up helping Princess Talia crack open a major piece of her heart that she had previously been disconnected with.”
Mezzo-soprano Eugenia Forteza, who had collaborated with Jarrar on “Tabula Rasa” and “A Christmas Carol,” was cast as the Ugly Duckling,
“I adore making music with Felix, especially when it’s his,” Forteza told OperaWire. “Felix knows my voice very well and everything he has ever written for me has been a gift to perform.”
“Eugenia has such an instinct for understanding the layers of a diva such as Ugly Duckling. Her voice has really matured into a beautiful instrument over the years, and I cannot wait for people to hear her in this role,” Jarrar noted.
In creating the Ugly Duckling, a pop star going through a major crisis, Jarrar noted that he took inspiration from his favorite pop star Britney Spears.
“As a kid, I was a hardcore Spice Girls fan and my first dream was to be a pop star,” Forteza revealed. “So Felix is giving me a huge gift with this character! [We] have been having a lot of fun working on this character for over a year now. I’m very much enjoying playing a pop diva, with all her ups and downs!!”
Finally, Jarrar cast Nicholle Bittlingmeyer as Oscar the Fox.
“Nicholle really connects to Oscar’s character. She is such a passionate actress. Her voice is really quite powerful, and I really admire how she colors words,” Jarrar noted of the mezzo-soprano, who previously performed his song cycle “Eclipse.”
Oscar is the outsider among the cast of characters, looking for a way to fit into the wildness around him.
“He wants to believe in fairy tales and happily ever afters – but his sensibilities make it a very hard pill to swallow,” Bittlingmeyer noted before emphasizing that like her character, “We’re both realists who wish they can be as carefree and hopeful as the people around them.”
Carefree spirit is ultimately what this opera is all about.
“Audiences should get ready to LAUGH and leave aside any preconceived ideas of what a fairytale or an opera should be like. We have a killer team and you’re in for a treat,” Forteza noted.
But it is also an opera that aims to bring major issues of representation to the forefront and emphasizes opera’s ability to break through that mold.
“I hope audiences are able to see how diverse and varied the operatic genre is, especially contemporary opera,” added Richardson. “As seemingly cliche as this phrase may be, opera is very much alive and thriving in new and unexpected ways, and ‘Mother Goose’ is an excellent example of that trend.
“I hope people take away that even in these dark times they can find their true selves, live their truth, and achieve all the goals that they dare to dream,” Jarrar concluded, happily ever after.