The Snow Maiden of Appalachia
Tidewater Opera Initiative Offers Newly Written Opera
Slover Library, Norfolk, Virginia, January 17, 2016
Review by John Campbell
Some background before the review begins. What you are about to read is the comments of two listeners. This was a read-through of a work in progress and our feedback is intended to be helpful to the composer and the enterprising young opera company that commissioned it. If your experience was different from ours, tell us personally, or if you wish, we will publish your comments for our readers.
"... a good opera composer needs to be flexible and must learn to make his musical language capable of the slightest shift of mood or psychology on the part of his characters. Modernism, with its obsession for purity and rigor in musical rhetoric, had proven to be a debilitating artistic ground for effective music drama. My natural suspicion of orthodoxy and stylistic rigidity gave me a leg up when it came to writing for the stage." John Adams on Nixon in China.
A cast of six vocalists and four instrumentalists conducted by Steven Brindle brought a new opera to the near-capacity audience at the Community Room at the spectacular, new Slover Library in downtown Norfolk. Commissioned by Tidewater Opera Initiative (TOI), composer Andrew Haile Austin was the electronic pianist for the premiere concert performance (stage reading) of The Snow Maiden of Appalachia. Mr. Austin began writing the libretto in May 2015 and continued to revise it up to the performance. He composed the music between September and November 2015. His bio states that he currently studies with Kevin Puts (b. 1972) at Peabody Institute in Baltimore, where he just received his Doctorate in February 2016. We saw Puts’ Silent Night a few years ago on PBS at Christmas and were enthralled and we had assumed that with this piece we were in for a treat.
The Snow Maiden is a winter fantasy, a dream that melts away in the spring. Based loosely on a Russian folk tale of a childless couple longing for a child, their wish is seemingly fulfilled when a snow girl comes to life. The characters Wife and Husband, sung by exciting coloratura Anna Feucht and the multi-talented Anthony Smith, are childless and distraught. Wife dreams of an Appalachian snow scene in which she sees a child. Husband builds a snow child and they fantasize being a happy family. When their tears fall on the snow child she comes to life, summoned, it seems, from the land of dreams. The Snow Maiden was sung by the superb Kathryn Kelly. At this, the emotional high point of the opera, the three celebrate at the top of their vocal ranges but the joy in the text is not expressed in the music.
There were three other characters. The community matriarch Lucinda was sung by Adriane Kerr. A secondary plot involves Kelly, sung by Dustin Scott, who comes back after years to try to reconnect with his former fiancé Pauline, sung by Bridget Cooper.
The musicians, in addition to Mr. Austin at the keyboard, included Darla Wilmot, flute; Rachael Stambaugh, violin; and Barrell Davis, cello. Though young, they played with professional polish. The musical language was familiar and was not unlike Britten and Berg, two of my favorite opera composers.
The effective acting and movement were the work of Director Sara Rademacher, currently a MFA Directing Candidate at Columbia University. After the Snow Maiden comes to life Lucinda listens as the indecisive Pauline tries to narrow down what she will sing at the upcoming winter carnival at the grange—In the Bleak Mid-Winter, jazz, a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song, a bel canto fragment, and a crooned love song. Woven into the cacophony of the overall opera there were brief moments of communication with the audience, the most obvious being the snatches of song sung by Pauline, when we heard Ms. Cooper's wonderful voice full of wide possibilities.
Tenor Dustin Scott as Kelly had a pliant, beautiful sound in his tuneful hello to his jilted former lover Pauline. Trying to fit the request by TOI that the work be set in Virginia, Mr. Austin drew on Appalachian stereotypes giving Kelly a backstory of being a boxer and bootlegger. Later in the opera we were presented with the gratuitous information that he had married someone else and seriously contemplated killing her. At the conclusion Pauline decides to walk away from him.
In the last scene of Act One, Husband, Wife and Snow Maiden are bonding, snug inside their cabin, surrounded by winter and singing of love and perseverance. After Wife overhears the sound of the winter carnival in the distance they head out. At the grange Pauline sings a carefree dance tune. Finding Kelly, she suggests that since they’ve been together for a few months, perhaps they should marry. Instead he goes drinking, sees the Snow Maiden and falls for her. The act ends in tension and confusion with Pauling attacking the Snow Maiden.
Act Two offers solos, duets and trios on the subjects of remembrance, sadness and regret but little action. Descriptions of emotions to a static musical palette made the act seem interminable.
The opera was a very frustrating experience. We know well the vocal quality and capacity of several of the singers. The music given to them was harsh and overblown, pushing singers to the top of their range and asking them to sing full-out over and over again. Singing in this way left them no place to create larger dramatic moments. From the composer’s website we learned that he has written musical theater pieces. That is where belted high, thin voices are the norm.
We found no place in the work where we could feel comfortable and bond with the characters. Never did the music invite the audience to care about the events unfolding in the characters’ lives. The program speaks of Austin’s love of early to mid-20th century music and musical theater— Britten, Poulenc, Sondheim, Bernstein, et al. These composers wrote music that draws you into the story and entices you to care about what happens to their characters. The singers gave their all but the musical landscape was static and consistently astringent and kept us on guard emotionally. This consistency blocked out the possibility of variation, whether nuanced, soft or dramatic. If the story were told primarily using the mid-range of the voices reserving the higher range and loud volume for dramatic effect the piece would have been much more listenable as well as easier on the singers.
One last suggestion: to strengthen Mr. Austin’s libretto, the formidable vocal assets of Adriane Kerr could have been used as a decisive Greek chorus to move along the very slow-moving expository second act.
We see Mr. Austin as a hard-working, committed composer. I doubt that his goal was to rebel against the historic role of the voice in opera. Our goal in this review is to give Mr. Austin feedback, hoping that at some future date we can enjoy a full production of a revised The Snow Maiden of Appalachia.
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