Alan Turing’s life was indeed meant for opera. Church-going boy confused and embarrassed by homosexual tendencies; mathematically gifted mind takes young man to Cambridge and Princeton; code-breaking abilities land him a job with British government; created the device that decoded Nazi messages; added many theories and innovations to electronics, mathematics and computer science; put on trial for being a homosexual and forced to use female hormones (chemical castration) instead of jail time; cyanide poisoning suicide at 41 years old.
American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program has made an effort to document Turing’s life through a new opera by composer Justine F. Chen and librettist David Simpatico. Their first reading of it was Thursday May 30th amid 23 black chairs, a piano and conductor’s podium during InsightALT – a festival of new operas. The festival is designed to offer perspective on the creative process of new opera at every stage of development.
The Goldman-Sonnenfeldt Family Auditorium on the upper west side of Manhattan proved to be a fantastic space for the intimate concert setting. We had an up-close and personal look at the intricacies of the piece, but had enough space to be able to envision its grandness. Something tells me that in the very near future ALT will need a bigger space not only because of experimentation with chamber orchestras and sets, but for the sheer popularity the festival deserves to accrue.
Chen has a real knack for encapsulating sense of place through sound. For instance, as one might traditionally use figured bass, antiphon or organ music to create the church hall, Chen embodies the echoes heard as one speaking resounds in the lofted hallways and rafters of the church sanctuary. This not only gives you a sense of place, but also provides depth, nuance and dimension – a 3-D sound effect if you will. It’ll be interesting to see how the orchestration will fit in, but this was a tremendously fun effect.
This was cunningly done with use of a 16-person chorus (which will be 24-30 members when fully staged). In fact, Chen gives such importance to the chorus that all voice sections act as an individual character at times.
Jonathan Estabrooks has a rustic and bronzy baritone and was able to carry the mathematically gifted yet conscientiously distraught Turing with believability and poise. Benjamin Robinson as Turing’s young lover and confident named Christopher Morcom has a sweet and lyrical tenor and was able to play Morcom with intimacy and preciseness. The mother of Turing, Sara Turing, was played by Kathryn Guthrie who has a real gift for diction and clarity. The first one to betray young Turing’s love and feelings was Fred Clayton and was depicted by Joseph Beutel. Beutel, possessing a raw, young and unbridled baritone voice seemed willing to take risks. The stand out of the night was Elise Quagliata who played Joan Clark. Quagliata possesses a deep and rich mezzo-soprano who carries vibrancy and energy through each phrase. Her love proclamation for Turing towards the end of the reading was smart and convincing. Indeed, the duet that melted from her proclamation into Estabrooks uneasy restraint was the most powerful drama in the composition.
Special attention must be called to select singers from the fantastic chorus: Brace Negron, whose racy and colorful baritone successfully shape-shifted to fit several characters throughout Turing’s life and Stephen Campanella who sweetly wassailed a clever, but deceptively difficult, carol.
Particularly helpful during the reading was the use of plot text which was lit against the back wall. It gave the story momentum and adjusted the audience’s awareness of time. Without it I think the audience would have been disjointed from the chronological events of Turing’s life. Likewise, the audience seemed to thoroughly enjoy the layout of the reading: Intro, reading, four-step audience/artists critique process.
There is great potential in this piece and we’re rooting for all involved with InsightALT’s future readings!