Review: Compelling new opera, ‘Fallout,’ revisits 1960s, dangers of pesticides
Summerfest launched its ambitious new series of operas with contemporary relevance on July 19 with a powerful environmental statement called “A New Kind of Fallout.”
The opera is a tribute to the pioneering work of Rachel Carson. It is set in 1962, the year her book “Silent Spring” was published. The piece dramatizes the impact of Carson’s call for awareness of the dangers of pesticides.
The story was created by Pittsburgh playwright Tammy Ryan, who was assisted in the writing of the libretto by composer Gilda Lyons.
We encounter the protagonist Alice Front as an old woman dying of cancer. She sings of receiving chemotherapy to treat the effects of being exposed to toxic chemicals 50 years earlier. She remembers the battle cries of her youth, including the chemical industry’s ‘better living through chemistry” and the reply of scientists.
Mezzo soprano Daphne Alderson gave a haunting portrayal of old Alice, managing with firm and steady tone to convey both her physical weakness and strength of spirit.
The opera is well conceived dramatically, personalizing the issues through Alice’s husband Jack Front, who creates advertising for a chemical company, his co-workers and their friends.
The opera is spot-on at re-creating the atmosphere of the early ’60s, from Alice’s book club to a bar scene for the men where a classic of male chauvinism — control your wife — is expressed by his co-workers.
There are two “Newsreels” in the opera. The one in the first act is an arch commercial extolling pesticides, which was received with laughter.
The first act reached a powerful climax in an unusual duet in which old Alice sings of fighting her disease and young Alice sings of fighting pollution. It could be an anthem for activists.
Lara Lynn Cottrill was a commanding presence as young Alice, fully nuanced in the moment and possessing an overarching vision of a woman passionately following her beliefs. She sang the final scene of the first act with too much power for the Art Deco Ballroom at the Twentieth Century Club in Oakland, but small choruses singing from side balconies near the stage also overloaded the hall.
Baritone Christopher Scott brought warm and well-modulated singing to his appealing role. Scott was adept in creating a persuasive evolution of his views.
The second act’s newsreel is a mixture of films, which might have been better separated. The first part shows pesticides being used in the early ’60s, including ominous footage with the sound of a spraying airplane approaching. The second part of the newsreel includes Rachel Carson testifying before Congress.
Lyons’ music moves the opera well, fluently traversing distinctively characterized styles. She creates bright and open lines to start the opera and later when Alice and Jack exemplify a good marriage, and somewhat denser and more rhythmically agitated when there is conflict. Lyons’ command of varied musical textures is masterly.
The opera would benefit from trimming. The first act felt too long, as did the courtroom scene in the second act.
Smaller roles were well cast. Mezzo soprano Teresa Procter brought real distinctiveness to book club member Bette Stritch. Bass Glenn Ayars was more domineering in acting than vocally as chemical company CEO Arthur Begman.
Conductor Robert Frankenberry led the singers and chamber orchestra expertly through the music’s changing meters and produced excellent balances.
Jonathan Eaton’s direction made good use of the small space, provided distinction for each of the characters and was brilliant in the final scene. It was a mistake, however, to present Old Alice as the judge in the scene in the courtroom.
“A New Kind of Fallout” is a strong first step in a project Summerfest is calling “Music that Matters.” It is notably unusual and a welcome change that the opera expresses women’s perspectives, from Rachel Carson and the librettist and composer to the protagonist.
Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Tribe Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or [email protected].
Summerfest’s production of “A New Kind of Fallout” will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. July 24 and 26 at the Twentieth Century Club, 4201 Bigelow Blvd, Oakland. Admission is $25 to 75. Details: 412-326-9687 or otsummerfest.org.