PROTOTYPE FESTIVAL: The Scarlet Ibis

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Worlds collide this week as Stefan Weisman and David Cote’s opera THE SCARLET IBIS premieres at HERE as part of the Prototype Festival. The opera uses not only living, breathing singers, but also stunningly crafted puppets.

THE SCARLET IBIS was commissioned and developed through the HERE Artist Residency Program and Dream Music Puppetry Program. David Cote based his libretto on a short story of the same title by James Hurst.  It has absolutely everything a great chamber opera demands: beautiful music, beautiful words, and a compact cast. It lacks, however, one major component–a compelling story.

The story contains no real conflict and tends to drone on in the same thematic vein–helping a crippled boy walk.  There are moving moments that are given emotional depth by the singers and the staging, but the piece is too long and loses the audience’s attention. The scarlet ibis, for which the story is named, only makes his appearance a couple scenes before the end of the opera as an omen of death.  The promise made at the beginning of the show is quickly kept thereafter when the small crippled boys dies in the final moments of the opera. The audience seemed unsure if it was time to applaud or not after the final blackout.

All this said, there are some splendid moments in the opera. Cote’s words are full of life and color as he brings the tragic life of this boy to the stage.  There are multiple arias that paint intricate pictures, including the Mother’s first aria (sung tenderly by Abigail Fischer) while she holds her almost lifeless newborn. Or the haunting aria sung by Doodle, the young cripple, when he tells his brother about the fantastic lands he travels to in his dreams.

Stefan Weisman’s score (conducted by new opera guru Steven Osgood) compliments the fine libretto and also takes moments to really come forward and shine.  The arias are accompanied by rich orchestration and the vocal line is never overpowered by the accompaniment.  The score remains tonal and flows and pours out naturally.

The cast is filled with young singers who give strong performances and try to add the tension and conflict that the story lacks.  They are at times exceptionally successful, such as Mezzo Hai-Ting Chinn who plays Doodle’s older brother.  She captures the boyishness as well as the somewhat sociopathic tendencies of the character, but also provides several emotionally stirring scenes. Nicole Mitchell, contralto, sings deliciously profound and earthy tones as the wise Aunt.  Keith Phares plays the father who’s ringing baritone remains mostly uncolored in a rather flat role.

The true star of the show, however, is Doodle, the puppet that is masterfully manipulated and appears incredibly life-like on stage. The puppeteers move his head and body in such a convincing way that the audience has to remind themselves that this is not a real baby on stage. Doodle is given voice by countertenor Eric S. Brenner who sings much more like a male soprano.  Brenner struggles for some notes, yet sounds simply angelic at other times. It is a visually interesting casting choice.  I would have preferred a boy soprano as the juxtaposition of a grown man with facial hair singing as a six year old boy was jarring.

The puppetry calls on several different forms of puppetry including shadow puppetry, hand manipulated puppets, and puppets on large poles. They all give such excitement to the production that they stand out as particularly excellent among everything else.

For more information click here.

Photo Credit: Cory Weaver

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