Playwrights Lend Their Star Power to Three Mini-Operas

By Karen Campbell, | The Christian Science Monitor, November 12, 1999 | Go to article overview

Playwrights Lend Their Star Power to Three Mini-Operas


Karen Campbell,, The Christian Science Monitor


What do you get when you mix three of America's most celebrated playwrights with three young composers of substantial recognition and ask them to write an opera?

Considering that none of the playwrights had ever written an opera libretto, and the composers had little or no operatic experience, one could have expected an incoherent mishmash of musical and dramatic styles.

However, what the commissioning team of New York City Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, and Thirteen/WNET's "Great Performances" got for their visionary risk-taking was "Central Park," a triptych of new and original one-act operas that has been an unabashed hit with audiences.

Though reviews have been mixed, audiences have been flocking to see the latest dramatic efforts of Wendy Wasserstein, Terrence McNally, and A.R. Gurney, paired with the musical efforts of Deborah Drattell, Robert Beaser, and Michael Torke.

Following sold-out world premire performances at Glimmerglass in August, "Central Park," a New York City Opera production, opens tonight at Lincoln Center and tickets are scarce. Most of us will have to wait until Jan. 19, when "Great Performances" airs the opera on television.

Directed by Mark Lamos, "Central Park" features singers Lauren Flanigan and Joyce Castle (Mimi Lerner replaces Castle in the City Opera performances).

The three one-act operas are quite different from one another, both musically and dramatically. But what ties the three together is the unifying theme of Central Park, which seemed a natural point of departure, considering that all parties involved are currently Manhattanites.

Pulitzer Prize-winning Wendy Wasserstein created a libretto for Deborah Drattell, the composer-in-residence for New York City Opera and Glimmerglass Opera. Their The Festival of Regrets centers around a Jewish ritual at the Bethesda Fountain. Wasserstein peppers the work with zingy one-liners, which Drattell sets with a fairly somber, often dissonant klezmer-tinged score.

Dramatist A.R. Gurney collaborated with Michael Torke, best known for his compositional style of infusing a classical aesthetic with pop influences. Their affecting Strawberry Fields centers on an elderly woman with Alzheimer's disease who thinks her perch at the "Imagine" mosaic is a seat at the opera and that the concerned student who befriends her is her long-dead husband. Gurney's comic- poignant libretto is given a gentle, engagingly eclectic and lyrical treatment by Torke.

Terrence McNally, who has had several musical projects on Broadway, teams with Robert Beaser, who has been called one of the leaders of the "New Tonalists." In their wrenching Food for Love, a young homeless woman tries unsuccessfully to get a kind passerby to take her infant son off to a better life. Beaser sets McNally's darkly witty, sometimes caustic libretto to a colorful and tuneful score.

What emerged from these partnerships are works in which Central Park is less a theme than a setting for intriguing examinations of human nature. While an array of joggers and Frisbee players remind the viewer of the location, the theme is more about the vicissitudes of life - loss, regret, and hope.

There was some controversy early on in the project when Aaron Jay Kernis, one of the original composers, left the project because of artistic differences with playwright McNally. This led to charges that the project was dramatically rather than musically driven, that even though none of the playwrights had ever written libretti before, it was the composers who were ultimately expendable. …

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