After a highly successful debut in 2013 the Frontiers program has become the icing on the cake for the Fort Worth Opera Festival. It truly makes the festival encompass the past, present, and future of the genre. For those unfamiliar, Frontiers has a panel select from over 80 submissions of unpublished or self-published operas for a short presentation of selections from their works. The pieces are performed unstaged in front of a live audience by the Fort Worth Opera Studio Artists. The composers and librettists of the eight selected works are in attendance and introduce their pieces with curator Kurt Howard. A couple of the works performed at last year’s Frontiers have gone on to have full premieres. In general, each composer/libretto team presents a handful of scenes, or arias from scenes, to give the audience a glimpse of each of the operas. The eight performances are broken up into two presentations over the course of two days. Unfortunately, I was only be able to attend the first day, but the first four presentations did not disappoint in year two of this fantastic program.
The first opera presented was In A Mirror, Darkly, by composer Christopher Weiss and librettist S. O’Duin Magee. The team explained how the opera has been a long-term project that has gone under many changes, in fact the printed synopsis for this performance was already outdated by Thursday’s performance. The intriguing point within this opera was that it was an exploration of what librettist O’Duin Magee refers to as a “composite” story; meaning that rather than a beginning-middle-ending plot line, the work is three short stories that represent a larger theme and the sum of the three acts equal the greater opera as a whole. The work explores similar struggles of three different women from three very different time periods.
The second opera was written by composer/librettist Ronnie Reshef. Reshef spoke about wanting to compose something unique to her own life perspectives. Her opera, Something To Live For, explores a woman who has survived the Holocaust looking back at her experiences in the concentration camp. The woman’s “something to live for” was getting out to find her son, who she was separated from in the camp. The work is extremely emotional, highly thematic, and wonderfully melodic. One could easily see it being performed in the David McDavid Studio much like this season’s With Blood, With Ink — which had its set still on stage during these performances.
The third work on Thursday was Fertile Ground by composer David Vayo and librettist Nancy Steele Brokaw. Both the composer and librettist live and work in Central Illinois, and like a few of the other pairs, this was their first opera. Their goal was to present something that they knew well, and wasn’t the typical opera setting — Central Illinois, and specifically, the life of a farming family in the modern world. Author and playwright Nancy Steele Brokaw’s story was potentially the most thorough and complex of the selections, and immediately portrayed a gripping story in the limited scenes that were presented.
The final presentation was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by composer/librettist Hershel Garfein, and based on Tom Stoppard’s famous play by the same name. With a well composed piece featuring equally melodic melodies and some of the better English recit lines I’ve heard in awhile, this work was the most easy to imagine as a main stage opera. While Stoppard’s play is most known for his exploration of existentialism, it is also a bit of a comedy, and Garfein seems to lean on that comedy, which makes it seem, at least in the scenes we were presented, like an enjoyable modern opera-buffa. The comedic elements may have also greatly benefited from fantastic character performances by the artists Steven Eddy (who nailed his role of Ponchel in the Silent Night production) and Dan Kempson.
Friday’s presentation will feature selections from composer/librettist Anthony Green’s Alex in Transition, a story about a fictional transgender woman; composer/librettist Brent Straughan’s Precari, a tale of two lovers attempting to escape Sarajevo during the Bosnian War; composer Matthew Peterson and librettist Jason Zencka’s Voir Dire which is an adaption from the real-life trials librettist Jason Zencka witnessed as a crime reporter in Stephen’s Point, Wisconsin; and composer Robert Paterson and librettist David Cote’s Three Way. These final four selections will be presented on Friday, May 9 at 3pm.