Music News & Reviews

Rich Copley: Diverse group puts on 'dysfunctional' operas

Composer Lorne Dechtenberg played piano for a recent rehearsal — in his living room — of his opera Sutures and Love.
Composer Lorne Dechtenberg played piano for a recent rehearsal — in his living room — of his opera Sutures and Love. Lexington Herald-Leader

Lorne Dechtenberg is describing his opera Sutures and Love: "It's such a group of dysfunctional people in the show ... the characters, not you all," he says after his cast responds with a chorus of comments like, "Well you know," and "I have to disagree."

Dysfunctional doesn't seem to describe the group that has come together for the Bluegrass Opera's second annual "World Premiere Double Header," but diverse definitely does.

The cast for the two operas — With Such Friends ..., composed by Tom Schauber with a libretto by Jeff Duncan is the other one — comprises University of Kentucky voice students and folks from the community whose vocal training ranges from master's degrees from prestigious music schools to absolutely none.

"I was shanghaied by a very desperate Lorne and really had no idea what I was getting into," says Dave Dampier, a Kentucky Educational Television videographer and blues musician who is playing Ivan Nikiforovich in With Such Friends ... and Dr. Raymond Dermis in Sutures and Love. "I had no idea what I was getting into. Fortunately, he's a genius and quite the encourager."

For Dena Sullivan Smith, a computer programmer for Toyota who plays Betty Jo Wesson in Sutures and Love, being in an opera was a lifelong dream.

"I've been in musicals," Smith says. But for opera, "I never thought I was good enough."

"Well, you are now," castmate Bill Barto says. Holly Dodson, a current UK voice student, takes Smith's hand and says, "We've all felt that way."

She had always dreamed of being in an opera, but it's probably safe to say that Smith didn't envision a soap-operatic opera about plastic surgery, set in the Southwest with border patrol agents and illegal immigrants.

That's the setup to Sutures, which Dechtenberg originally had titled Sex, Drugs and Aliens.

Dechtenberg says he changed that fantastic title after staging some scenes while working on his master's degree in Houston.

"The overwhelming response was they loved the music, the lyrics and the characters, but nobody got the title," he says. "Nobody understood that Pablo was an illegal alien. They were looking for space aliens."

Not that space aliens would be beyond the scope of Bluegrass Opera. This is the company that last summer presented Quantum Mechanic, an opera by John Bilotta about an extraordinary refrigerator that zapped its users into another dimension.

Bluegrass Opera's commitment to presenting world premieres makes working with the company a joy for opera students who often have to study how singers of past generations tackled the iconic roles in Puccini operas or discern the 18th-century humor of Mozart.

"Usually with operas that are already established, it's constantly drilled into us, 'study this, study this,' 'character analysis' and 'watch this on YouTube,' and 'go to the library and read this,'" says Ariana Afrshari, who plays Candy in Sutures and Love. "I usually have a whole binder of analysis for each character I do, and with this, my character doesn't really think. ... It's really a new experience to do a role without all of this formal preparation."

Ashley Jackson, who plays Gapka Gapkanovna in With Such Friends ..., says, "Sometimes I think we forget as singers, we're performers, and even though things have been done before, we have to bring something of ourselves to this."

And it is more natural for the singers to bring themselves to a piece when it was written about their time, with their sensibilities — even if the settings are Russian courtrooms (With Such Friends ...) or plastic surgery clinics in the Southwest (Love and Sutures).

"With most standard operas, especially comedies, it was written a very long time ago, and even when you translate, say, Mozart operas into English, it's still not funny," says Phillip Bullock, who plays Ivan Ivanovich in With Such Friends ... . "Especially singing opera, its a different experience singing things that are new and current."

Barto says, "That's the nice thing about the company, is that Loren's intent to do stuff that hasn't been done, because composers are out there dying for people to do their stuff."

Jessica Pearl French, who plays Judge Demyan Demyanovich in With Such Friends ... and Cynthia Corners in Sutures and Love, says, "It gives us an opportunity to be genuinely creative. With these, no one knows what they're getting themselves into, including the audience."

Judging by the laughter in the room, the singers are having fun with whatever it is they've gotten themselves into.