Has any art form been prematurely pronounced obsolete or extinct as often as opera? Much like Broadway, its fabulously invalid descendent, opera’s demise has been erroneously reported more times than Mark Twain’s and the print media’s put together. Yet still there persist skilled artists able to execute classics of the canon in an accessible, entertaining way and audiences eager to experience them; Florida Opera Theatre’s production of Menotti’s The Old Maid and the Thief last weekend at Orlando Repertory was proof positive of that.
Still, it isn’t often that audiences flock to an original opera that doesn’t have the prefix “rock” appended to it, at least outside New York. And it’s even rarer that you hear about a new opera originating in Orlando – much less as the subject of a sensational exposé on the local evening news. But there was Alan Gerber, associate music professor at Valencia College, being breathlessly interrogated in an “exclusive” WFTV interview last Friday investigating a supposed religious controversy surrounding the premiere of Under the Rainbow, his new one-act oratorio about gay marriage.
As a journalist, I was disappointed in the report’s shoddy sourcing, which relied on a single silhouetted student to allege that members of the school orchestra were being pressured to violate their theological principles in order to pass Gerber’s class. Gerber refuted the charge, which arose after some musicians protested against accompanying the opera by skipping a mandatory rehearsal, saying no one would fail his course over a spiritual conflict. As an artist, I was saddened if not surprised by the artificial outrage. But as a producer, I was frankly envious of the free publicity generated by the ginned-up conflict. It’s ultimately an issue for the school administration’s attendance policy to decide, but in the meantime the press helped bring a standing-room-only audience to the Saturday-night performance I attended, something I’m certain few other student-performed operas can claim.
Catherine Carmaleri (Crystal Lizardo) is a devout Catholic and director of her church choir, but that doesn’t stop her son Kevin (Steven Flores) from coming out as a homosexual. (Perhaps it was the rainbow blanket she swaddled him in?) Catherine’s church group gets into a violent conflict with human-rights marchers, resulting in an injured protester (Kassy Eugene), on the eve of Kevin’s wedding to his partner, Peter (Joseph Ashenheim). Catherine refuses to accept or attend the nuptials, despite the pleas of her daughter Janet (Elizabeth Tummons), and prays to God for guidance. The answer arrives in the form of a guardian angel (Emily Grainger), who summarizes “God is love,” leaving Catherine free to attend the wedding with a clear conscience.
That’s a ton of emotional and political territory to cover in barely 45 minutes (including an overture), and as a multilayered work, Under the Rainbow works better on some levels than on others. As a piece of agitprop in support of marriage equality, it is spectacularly earnest and effectively heartfelt. I personally support the same progressive agenda, but appreciate that Gerber made an effort not to affront the opposing camp, affording due respect to Catherine’s religious beliefs without mocking or dismissing them. The plot’s theological implications ultimately strain credibility – as when a priest (Ricardo Dominguez) is prompted by a scripture-quoting liberal to proclaim, “I’ve been a fool” and officiate at Kevin’s ceremony – but its heart is in the right place.
Musically, Gerber constructs a mix of classically flavored songs using Harold Arlen’s immortal “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (especially the familiar bridge, which is transformed into a recurring theme) and the traditional hymn “Amazing Grace” as building blocks. Some of the melodies pack a Puccini-esque punch, and they were elevated by excellent performance from all of the featured vocalists, led by Lizardo’s emotionally expressive soliloquies. I’m not certain if Gerber was attempting some excitingly atonal harmonics or if the string section was just badly out of tune, but this may have been a rare instance where synthesizers might have been more effective than amateur live musicians. Incidentally, I counted approximately the same number of musicians on stage as were listed in the program, so televised predictions of mass defections seem not to have
Dramatically, Under the Rainbow doesn’t have the running time to develop its plot or characters into anything more than Lifetime-movie caricatures. There’s potential for catharsis in the subject matter, but it isn’t fully mined because the two main characters never speak (or sing, as it were) to each other. Kevin kvetches to his fiancé, Catherine carps to Christ and bystanders on both sides sling barbs, but Kevin and his mom are never face to face until their mute meeting at the very end. Perhaps that’s the perfect emblem for this well-intentioned production and others like it: two sides talking about each other instead of engaging in dialogue.