Roundtable With the Creators & Performers of Chicago Opera Theater’s ‘The Puppy Episode’

By Chris Ruel

Four characters across generations come to terms with their identities as a major coming-out story was playing out on television. That is at the core of “The Puppy Episode,” a new work set to be showcased by Chicago Opera Theater as part of its Vanguard Emerging Opera Composer Residency.

The work was composed by Matthew Recio in collaboration with librettist Royce Vavrek and will have its concert premiere on March 20, 2021.

Among the opera’s cast members is Justin Berkowitz, who portrays Gil, a teenager with feelings for his best friend Clay, performed by Evan Bravos.

OperaWire recently connected with Recio, Berkowitz, and Bravos (all making their Chicago Opera Theater debuts) via email, asking each about their experience working on the opera.

OperaWire: Matthew, why does “The Puppy” Episode story resonate with you, and how did that influence your score?

Matthew Recio: My musical language has always been inspired by vocal lyricism. I have been drawn to the thick and colorful layering of the French masters, such as Debussy and Ravel. The story-telling and organic vocal writing of Britten has always been a key inspiration for my own writing. With the thread of these raw and intimate storylines in “The Puppy Episode” I found the use of space and transparency to be a key element in the fabric of the storytelling. Vocally, I was given a cast with whom composers dream of working, and I tailored a lot of these roles to these individual voices, showcasing their vocal talents.

OW: What was your experience working with Royce Vavrek?

MR: I was drawn to Royce as a collaborator because of his ability to create multi-dimensional characters filled with empathy and nuance. As opera composers, we get a platform to comment on society, culture, politics, and morality that will hopefully transcend the time a particular opera is written. As a bisexual man, I have had to unlearn a lot of what society presents about gender roles and sexual identity, and I wanted to create an opera that embodies the queer experience. Coming into my queerness, I felt compelled to create characters that reflect queer identities, and I knew that Royce, also a member of the LGBTQ+ community, would be able to represent these lives from a genuine perspective.

OW: What drew you, Justin and Evan, to this opera?

Justin Berkowitz: As someone who has gone through the coming-out process, I think that Matthew and Royce have beautifully captured the various and conflicting emotions that one experiences as they reckon with how to share who they are with the world. This piece provides audiences with different journeys for each of the characters. We see and hear the process from each generation and are able to find the beauty, wonder, and heartbreak in each of these stories.

Evan Bravos: The story told in this remarkable one-act chamber opera couldn’t connect with me on a more personal level if it tried. Coming out is one of the most monumental things a queer person does within their lifetime. The line in the opera “the first time you say it” captures it perfectly—and in real life, you don’t just come out once. First, you come out to yourself. Then, your best friends; closest family members; those you really trust. Then, those family members for whom you know it will likely be more of an emotional hurdle. And then every time it comes up in conversation with a stranger. You learn to avoid it where it will offend or be more trouble than it’s worth. And you learn to trust those who you know are trustworthy. I’m very lucky; my own mother was very understanding and always swore by the phrase: “Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter, don’t mind.”

OW: As the originators of your roles, what aspects of the characters of Gil and Clay?

JB: One of the best things about getting to originate the role of Gil has been exploring how he romanticizes the world. I tend to be a Type-A guy who is organized to a fault, so I’ve enjoyed exploring Gil’s larger-than-life whimsy. Developing the role of Gil from the beginning of the process has been such a joy. I have loved getting to watch as Matthew and Royce have realized Gil and his journey to find. All along the way, there has been such a freedom to try new things, take new risks and collaborate together to find this character. For me, finding the tender and sweet moments in Gil’s journey has been such a gift.

EB: I was most focused on highlighting Clay’s vulnerability and humanity within the confines of his own prescribed notion of what it means to be the likable, inoffensive, and status quo high school jock. It was important for me to break down and divorce appearance from sexual identity.

For me, Clay is the every-gay-man (coining that, if it isn’t already a thing) not wanting to disrupt anyone else’s reality in order to acknowledge his own. Joking and self-deprecating to re-center conversation, in order to take the omnipresent spotlight away, and offer glimpses of the vulnerable, true self.


Behind the ScenesInterviewsStage Spotlight