First Opera by Chris Lamb Presented at CNU

Scott Crissman, a talented young singer with Virginia Chorale, invited us to hear the first opera of a fellow student at Christopher Newport University on March 11, 2011. Scott had a leading role in the concert presentation of Christopher Lamb's just completed opera David and Glass. For us the experience was powerful and emotionally moving and entertaining. We were given the libretto to read when we arrived since following the story of a new opera in concert offers a challenge for the listener to understand the actions sung about but not acted out. Like so many operas, the story is a timeless fable of power, love, torture and regret but with a twist. The leading men, tenors, of course, discover that their love is for each other. The composer describes it as "a loose modern twist on 'David and Goliath'."

Composer Chris LambIn June, Chris Lamb will graduate from Christopher Newport. He organized this amazing musical evening as his required senior recital for an undergraduate degree in composition. His composition instructor is Christoper Cook. We heard the premiere of Dr. Cook's Hubble's Eye on February 14, 2011 and his exciting Clockworks last season, both on Norfolk Chamber Consort programs.

In December, 2009, junior Chris Lamb outlined the scenario and characters of his opera and turned it over to fellow student and English major Caitlin Dungan who presented him the libretto by February, 2010. She graduated CNU in the spring. For a year Chris labored over his opera, completing it by December, 2010. He then called on fellow students to help him put the opera on stage since students alone are responsible for their senior recitals.

His original ambition was to fully stage the opera. Since the libretto is ground-breaking in subject, I wondered if that had anything to do with its not being staged. "No, the decision was purely practical," Chris continued “One of the attributes of attending a small school is that everyone is involved in multiple performance opportunities, which is both a blessing and a curse!” He goes on to explain that everyone at CNU was very supportive, providing him with a special Friday evening slot for the presentation and cooperating on time for fellow students to rehearse his two-hour, three-act opera. He was even granted two days of dress-rehearsals on the stage of the Music and Theatre Hall of Ferguson Center where the performance would take place.

The opera opens with a scene set in a warehouse where Prince Jonathan, tenor Michael Baggett, is being tortured by Mr. Glass. Breaking with opera tradition the villain is a countertenor. The composer used the high tessitura to add menace. Paul Keen, wearing blue surgical gloves and holding pliers, threatens the recently kidnapped prince. It has to do with fingernail removal. As the lights, go out we hear the prince's scream.

In the second scene King Saul, baritone Andrew René, appears, mourning the disappearance of his son, obviously in conflict about duty, tradition and his love for his son. The king, a conservative, pious old man, compares himself to a gnarled tree that can bend only so far. He lights a candle each night that the prince might come home.

In the third scene, we meet royal police officer David Jesse, tenor Scott Crissman, who is on a drug bust gone awry when he takes shelter in the warehouse where Mr. Glass is again torturing Jonathan. Officer Jesse immediately understands that he has found the missing prince and defends him. Mr. Glass is killed in the struggle and the officer brings the prince home.

In Act II, scene 1, the King is overjoyed, gives the job of chief inspector to David Jessie and offers financial help to David's extended family. The first week finds David stressed because being an administrator and public figure does not suit his nature. Jonathan comes in to thank David for his heroic rescue. There seems to be a deep bond between them that Jonathan, who has a reputation of being a playboy, recognizes. Jonathan, when alone, sings Unquiet Feelings as he looks at his fingertips with the nails missing. The song ends with “But let me just once look upon him / as a balm to ease these scars / let us share one perfect morning / in a world that's purely ours.”

Later by email I asked composer Chris Lamb how he would describe his music. He told me that it is motif driven. He constructed motives based on the characters. He then explained that he had written for voice only once before, a setting for voice and clarinet.

For instance the villainy theme from the first act comes back in Act II, scene 3 when the maids, soprano Emi Frantz and soprano Victoria Myers, report to the King and his Advisor, baritone Wesley Evans, about the Prince's gay tendencies. We learn that in order to preserve tradition and the proud name of the royal family, the King's Advisor had hired Mr. Glass to remove the Prince from the sucession, leaving himself to be the next King. The King is angry and feels that this is too risky and once alone sings The Queen's Lament as if he is speaking to the boy's deceased mother, musing about Jonathan's life now unfolding and regretting his own loneliness since she died. Alone, the Advisor sings Flies the Blue and Gold which confirms his Catholic religion and his conservatism.

The plot unfolds: the King with his Advisor interview the second Maid about what she hears on the street. She says that the trail of the kidnappers is too faint to lead back to them. Instructed by the King's Advisor she spies on Jonathan as he enters David's room. The somewhat oblique conversation leads to a kiss. David and Jonathan sing the duet Breathing - “I can finally breathe, you are here.” In this concert presentation the kiss did not happen.

The King tries to separate the two. He tries to convince Jonathan that he is being used by David, then threatens harm to David's family so that David resigns to protect his family and is packing when Jonathan comes to his room. Jonathan overhears the conversation and confronts David and they reaffirm their love. In the song Poison the lovers sing, only to be joined by the King who is ambivalent about manipulating both young men. The song is excellent in every way, illuminating the hopelessness of the situation for all three men.

In scene four the King's Advisor sings Morning Mass which plays on a theme of the passage of time, a theme that is partially developed earlier. The King sees David off and assures him that he will protect his family and gives him a letter of recommendation. As David reaches the East Gate of the city he is met by Jonathan who asks to leave with him. In the Prince's room the King realizes his son has moved out and when the Advisor joins the quartet enthusing over gaining the power of being ruler we reach the end.

To my ear the music integrated elements from three of Chris's favorite composers: John Adams' intense wall of orchestral sound; Shostakovich's grand, dramatic climaxes and Copeland's straightforward conversational setting of text. My question for the composer concerning his use of percussion and brass drew this response: “Percussion and brass to me provide the meat of an ensemble. As a trombonist and having performed in Spirit Drum and Bugle Corps, it is no surprise that those two particular instrumental groups are my favorite.”

Fellow students played the two flutes, three clarinets, bassoon, four horns, two trumpets, a single trombone, two players on a variety of percussion instruments, piano and synthesized strings – seventeen players in all led by Music Director Steven Brindle. All were volunteers. “The decision to use a synthesizer for the strings was almost entirely a practical one. With the brass section I wanted, the strings would not have fit in the pit. But once I had decided to utilize the synth strings, I began to play around with other patches on the keyboard and soon I began incorporating them throughout. (Examples 'Get it Together' uses a Goblins Synthesizer and 'Seems a storm is moving closer' uses rain and thunder effects).

The two hours of music went by quickly. Chris Lamb demonstrates an intuitive ability in this, his first extended vocal work. The commitment of his talented fellow students testifies to the enthusiasm of a new generation of young people who will be part of a new day offering equality to gay people in an ever expanding American dream. In the fall Chris will continue his composition studies at the University of North Texas.

"David and Glass" is immortalized at CNU. There is a commemorative brick paver behind the administration building near the CNU fountain dedicated to the opera.

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