OPERA America 2023 Review: Felix Jarrar & Friends – Liederabend
World premieres abounded in a wide ranging showcase of Jarrar’s art songsBy Chris Ruel
Earlier this month, OPERA America’s McKay Studio was home to a compelling performance featuring the latest art songs by composer and pianist Felix Jarrar. Entitled “Liederabend with Felix Jarrar & Friends,” the event showcased the vocal talents of mezzo-soprano Jessica Trainor Tasucu, baritone Benjamin Howard, contralto Allison Gish, and tenor Ryan Morgan.
Jarrar’s diverse repertoire of art songs ranged from deeply personal expressions to more lighthearted pieces, ensuring an evening that was both thought-provoking and laugh-inducing. Many of these compositions were created during the pandemic, offering a glimpse into the emotions Jarrar experienced amid the harrowing days when New York City battled the relentless spread of Covid-19.
After a three-year anticipation, the audience finally had the opportunity to witness the premiere of these poignant works. Several of the pieces were the result of a collaborative effort between Jarrar and his frequent creative partner, librettist, and lyricist Bea Goodwin.
The featured vocalists were young, talented artists, many of whom have collaborated with Jarrar in previous operas or art song recitals.
French Kisses & Happy!
The recital began with Allison Gish’s world premiere performance of “French Kisses,” a three-song cycle co-created by Jarrar and lyricist Bea Goodwin. Comprising “Café Sucré,” “Je Suis Ton Nœd,” and “Bisous, My Baby,” the cycle captured the fleeting nature of love not meant to endure, culminating with the goodbye song “Bisous.”
Gish’s contralto voice confidently navigated the high tessitura, displaying mostly stable high notes. However, her approach to these notes resulted in a slightly compressed quality, as she reached for them rather than allowing for space above. The mezzo’s natural vibrato and expressiveness, both vocally and physically, contributed to an engaging performance. Her bright and robust sound aligned well with the overall tone of the cycle.
The following cycle, titled “Happy,” featured nine songs delving into various aspects of mental health, reflecting Jarrar’s personal experiences during the height of the pandemic. Described by Jarrar as his “tears,” the poignant poetry explores diverse themes, from whales and toxic relationships to a protagonist seeking to be loved like a dog.
Several songs within the cycle celebrated their world premieres, including “Melody of the Rorqual,” “I Try,” “Limping,” “He’s Dead and Gone,” “Happy!” “Rhode Island,” and “In My Mind.” Although “Rainbow Song” and “Love Me Like A Dog” are also part of the cycle, they had previously premiered.
Jarrar’s composition pushed baritone Benjamin Howard, who stepped in at short notice, out of his comfort zone throughout the evening. Jarrar is known for challenging his vocalists by writing music that sits higher in the voice, which encourages them to explore new territory.
Howard was most comfortable in his middle register. Still, Jarrar tasked him with climbing and singing piano in his upper register—a demanding feat due to the required control and fortitude, especially given Jarrar’s sparse piano lines that leave the singer highly exposed. As a result, Howard’s voice may have sounded more constrained and timid, suggesting he could have reined himself in too much.
Trainor-Tasucu’s voice blossomed during her rendition of “Limping.” She executed the octave jumps skillfully, and with emotional nuance. Jarrar highlighted that “Limping” is the saddest song of the cycle, with Schubertian influences. The ascending and descending rolled chords in the piano line on words like ‘limp’ evoke an off-kilter gait.
In the duet “He’s Dead and Gone,” Howard and Trainor-Tasucu’s voices blended harmoniously, showcasing well-matched timbres, confident tones, and a lush texture despite the high tessitura. Both singers appeared more comfortable near the top of their ranges without straining.
“Happy!”—the titular song of the cycle—was commissioned by Trainor-Tasucu and premiered virtually during the pandemic. The piece boasts an aria-like quality, both musically and lyrically. Despite its name, the song is not overtly joyful but serves as a gentle reflection on love during challenging times. Trainor-Tasucu explored her mid and lower registers, although her lower register could have been more robust. Once strengthened, the lower notes will provide an appealing contrast to the higher ones.
Jarrar’s cycle then transitioned to a brighter mood with the subsequent two songs. “Rhode Island” explores a failed romance from six years prior, in which the protagonist receives an apologetic letter from a former lover who had once broken their heart. The protagonist firmly (and colorfully) rebuffs the apology.
The following piece, “Love Me Like a Dog,” features a provocative title but centers around the desire to adopt a dog for companionship and love, as the protagonist has yet to find a suitable romantic partner.
Howard initially faltered during the opening of “Rhode Island” but quickly recovered, incorporating physical comedy to complement the Broadway-inspired music.
Trainor-Tasucu’s playful performance of “Love Me Like a Dog” showcased a strong voice and clear diction. The Broadway-style vocal line was more declamatory, and given the rich double entendre, clarity was essential. Her snappy execution and robust sound worked well, even with the high tessitura.
The ninth and final song, “In My Mind,” leaves the protagonist’s object of longing ambiguous—a lost lover, family member, or friend. The lyrics are versatile enough to accommodate various interpretations.
This song was one of Howard’s standout performances. He approached it gently and appeared to connect deeply with the music. Despite the slow tempo and high exposure, Howard delivered a smooth sound, utilized dynamics effectively, and conveyed the sentiment with authenticity.
Sea Boys and Wine-Swilling Moms
Following the “Happy!” cycle, Jarrar’s subsequent compositions return to his affinity for the sea.
Jarrar and Mangan collaborated to present the world premiere of “Sea Boy Barcarolles,” a three-song cycle inspired by Henry Scott Tuke’s impressionistic seascapes featuring nude males. The cycle includes “Sport You Salty Sea Dogs,” “O Fair and Fine Design,” and “Boy with an Oar,” with lyrics penned by tenor Ryan Mangan.
Jarrar’s score masterfully evokes the sea and its varying moods. Mangan’s sharp tenor voice was skillfully employed, revealing his deep connection to the pieces. His impressive vocal abilities were matched by his poetic talent, delighting the audience with his vivid lyrics.
The evening concluded with two pieces by the Goodwin/Jarrar duo: “Wild West” and “Wine Mom Song” from their opera “Tabula Rasa.”
“Wild West,” a world premiere, transported listeners to a time when remnants of the Wild West still lingered in the form of dilapidated frontier homes. Goodwin’s poetry captured this atmosphere with vivid imagery of artifacts left from the pioneer days and wide open, wild spaces.
Contralto Allison Gish performed both songs, with the “Wine Mom Song” from “Tabula Rasa” being a standout. The opera centers on Kiki de Montparnasse, and in this aria, Kiki’s terrible mother arrives to offer some advice. Gish fully embraced the character, adding a humorous touch to the evening’s finale.
Jarrar’s compositions demonstrate impressive versatility, spanning from atonal to Broadway-style music. Having written over 200 art songs, he has learned to adapt the art form for 21st-century audiences, creating an engaging and diverse body of work.