The Snow Dragon Is an Audacious Premiere

New opera by Thai composer is innovative fantasy that challenges conventions.

By - Mar 17th, 2015 04:27 pm
The Snow Dragon.

The Snow Dragon.

A world opera premiere last weekend with its world-renowned classical composer on hand reminded Milwaukee of the global reach and explorative creativity that represent Skylight Music Theatre at its best.

But The Snow Dragon, playing through March 29, is surprisingly even more audacious – opera providing scientific understanding of the mind, contemporary problems uncovered in an adolescent’s illusionary harbor.

Composer-librettist Somtow Sucharitkul (pen name as a novelist S. P. Somtow) has grown his short story involving fantasy flight and rescue from domestic child abuse into a chamber opera that verges into grand opera.  Producing this would tax the limits of any theatrical facility in the country, as it does the Cabot Theater. But it has full musical security from conductor (and Skylight artistic director) Viswa Subbaraman and the staging imagination of Mathew Ozawa.

The 14-piece orchestra in the pit captures every delicate shift, dramatic punctuation and soaring symphonious collaboration with a platoon of operatic singers – well, actually only nine onstage, doubling as chair, stairway and structure movers. Imitating watchers, mimes and mind travelers, they handle a complicated score of repetitive thematics and individualized motifs – not to hum on the way out but to absorb the ear as the visual elements expand the music’s meaning.  The songlike passages maintain the purpose, but it is the percussive clangs that haunt the memory.

These head-phoned stagehands and singers — in full visibility similar to Asian theater scene changers — take us from the steeple where young Billy Binder clings for life after being beaten and mentally frozen into the clinics that fail him and then through a gigantic ring portal where lurks the icy-cold, emotionless Fallen Country he wants to hide in.

A puppet dragon wheels around the stage as Billy does on his bicycle. The sets roll in or turn on mystical platforms. Shards of winter and chains of bondage descend from the ceiling, as do snowflakes.

Technical wonders aside (scenic design William Boles, costumes by Jason Orlenko, lighting by David Gipson), these visual effects are doorways into an underlying concept that pushes the edge of opera.  Spectacle is no stranger to opera, nor is the phantasmical. But the central story here is more attuned to the spoken word and the purely literary – an abused, beaten child being probed by modern sociologists in the form of Dora, a jaded child counselor seeking the courage to believe him. Like her we must deal with the real incidents and mysterious country he’s created to express his anger and confront the belt-wielding brute his mother has taken as a lover — the hateful Ringmaster that Billy must defeat.

One can only speculate as to how much of this vision – a childlike imagination illuminating loneliness and social estrangement — stemmed from Somtow’s own life experience. Born in Thailand, educated in England,  first noted for renewing Thai poetry, then internationally recognized in the 1970s as an exciting classical composer blending Western music with Eastern sensibilities, Somtow experienced personal doubts as freedom dried up in his homeland.

Isolated from his original self, he turned to US citizenship and success as a fantasy, sci-fi and horror writer (yes, vampires, too) before returning to Thailand and music where his operas and conducting have made the Bangkok Opera one of the growing lights of international art.

Such a personal journey touches on the artistic insight needed to mesh the fantastical and the real.  New operas are already built around established literature or historical events (Elmer Gantry or Nixon in China).  Somtow’s return to his fantasy short story has pushed the psychology of child abuse — normally expressed in textbooks or through the spoken melodrama — into fully sung revelations aimed at transforming social understanding.

Not to suggest that Somtow and company have created a perfect work, but certainly a daring one.  The show’s pace and methods are not fully satisfying.  A disjointed journey that should mesh never quite does. Even excellent composers can’t resist fillers in big operas or don’t always call it quits when the musical and dramatic points are fulfilled. But the scope of what is being attempted provoke our constant interest.

How rare to build an opera around a child, especially asking for more than a boy soprano to sing adoringly, but also to handle an intense dramatic performance. At 12, Luke Brotherhood is already a stage veteran in Milwaukee. But his experience as a disciplined actor who can communicate the fear and anger of Billy Binder was rightly the main element needed. The size of his voice opposite fully trained adults is less important than driving our understanding with his behavior.  And fortunately, he sings with exact balance, meaning and harmony in duets and even as one of four blending voices.

As child counselor Dora, the other lead role, Colleen Brooks has a thrilling mezzo that floats above the orchestra and good dramatic instincts. Since so much of the story rests on her reactions as the most internally troubled character, her acting elements needed more help from Ozawa.

Using his good looks and great baritone to brutal effect, Dan Kempson raises bully Peter Stark (alias Ringmaster) into an essential presence – a performance strength that drives us past simplistic villainy. The most powerful singing stems from majestic big soprano Cassandra Black as the elevated winged Snow Dragon (sort of the Good Witch of the East) – though truth be told her dramatic purpose in the story is less compelling than those anchoring arias so needed for Somtow’s musical progression.

As Billy’s loving mother and Stark’s docile enabler, Erica Schuller has a soprano voice ideal for lyric art songs and an alluring stage presence as she whips from costume to costume — though she is often singing at the very edge of her range.  There is also formidable choral work from a busy quartet – the best voice Erin Sura along with Ian Toohill, Eric Madson and Leigh Akin.

Some in the audience may wish for cheat sheets or CliffsNotes to follow the story because the sung phrases are harder to decipher than the spoken word. Their problem is embracing a process of modern psychological storytelling foreign even to Skylight patrons.

Just give yourself over. The music and imagery are more than sufficient to tell the story clearly, move the heart and may actually engage the mind more. The Snow Dragon is a remarkably important stretch in the concept of opera.

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You can find his blog here.

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