Last night the glitterati were all out at the Kennedy Center including the likes of Renee Fleming, the notorious RBG and now the even more notorious Ambassador Sergey Kislyak! Even so, all the focus was on the stage for this superb new work with an even more spectacular cast!
Emile Griffith: Arthur Woodley
Young Emile Griffith: Aubrey Allicock
Emelda Griffith: Denyce Graves
Benny "The Kid" Paret: Victor Ryan Robertson
Howie Albert: Wayne Tigges (sung at side of stage by Samuel Schultz)
Luis Griffith: Frederick Ballentine
Cousin Blanche/Sadie Griffith: Leah Hawkins
Kathy Hagan: Meredith Arwady
Ring Announcer: David Blalock
Little Emile Griffith: Samuel Grace
Man in the Bar: Andrew McLaughlin
Principal Dancer: Joe Orrach
Guitar: Dan Hovey
Piano: Fabian Almazan
Bass: Nathaniel West
Drums: Jeff "Tain" Watts
Conductor: George Manahan
Director: James Robinson
Set Designer: Allen Moyer
Costume Designer: James Schuette
Lighting Designer: Christopher Akerlind
Projection Designer: Greg Emetaz
Sound Design: Acme Sound Partners and Rusty Wandall
Wig and Makeup Designer: Tom Watson
Choreographer: Seán Curran
Fight Master: Joe Isenberg
Cover Conductor: William Long
Assistant Conductors: Joel Ayau and Paul Jarski
Diction Coach: Thomas Bagwell
Chorus Master: Steven Gathman
Assistant Director: Amanda Consol
Projected English Titles: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Stage Manager: Kimberley S. Prescott
This production use the same base set from the present Dead Man Walking with two white walls on either side of the front of the stage used for projections. These accordioned in and out around a central area at the stage framed above by a mid-stage square of lights that mimicked a boxing ring but was always suspended above; the implication was clear and obvious. At the rear the same Dead Man catwalk ran across the stage. As we arrived there was a long cylindrical punching bag hanging at the center of the square lighting ring. Ms. Zambello welcomed us and begged indulgence for Mr. Tigges who was indisposed but would still go on. Three boxers in training entered with one guy pushing around a small punching bag which he proceeded to batter with his hands oddly counter yet with the soft jazzy music in the pit that really could not be heard yet. Older Emile is brought forward on a bed and it is clear his dementia has set un as he sings about losing his shoe. Ultimately Luis enters with the lost shoe, which he found in the fridge, and there is a most poignant moment that is so beautifully staged and truly sets the scene for the sate this older man is now in. We hear the voices that taunt him as hi recalls his life and then we are transported to Carnivale in St. Thomas where Mr. Griffiths was born. The Younger Emile sings, "Gonna make you a hat" and wears a truly hideous straw hat with ribbons. There are folks on stilts and a party is going on. The fun is interrupted by the Ring Announcer in a tux at the right with a mic as we hear bell clangs as if in a boxing ring. He is not only the ring announcer, but also a kind of emcee who guides us through the work adding explanations as we go. There are constant videos displayed on the sides and rear which truly add to the understanding such as Carnivale scenes, the Virgin Islands or a NY apartment block where older Emile now lilves.
Young Emile switches his hat for a NY Yankess cap (which we saw hanging on Older Emile's bed at the beginning) grands his luggage and heads to NYC. His mother (Ms. Graves) greets him not knowing which of her abandoned children he is. She is in a summer dress of colorful blue and patterns with sunglasses and arrives in a 2-dimensional Cadillac which seems to overheat with steam. Her warm mezzo is perfect for this part which has a ton of great music, but we understand right from the start in her duet with her son, "Is that my boy?" that she has her interests in mind and clearly has a drinking problem. She has left some 7 orphans and 3 ex-husbands behind in the islands as well which she tells us of in "Seven babies in the sun, little orphans everyone." The projections are now of decrepit huts and an undulating Caribbean at the rear, which oh so effective. The mother takes the son to Mr. Albert, the hatmaker and a trio begins where she tries to get him a job as the women in the factory are working at a table behind them. Mr. Albert asks Emile "have you ever done any boxing?" to which he replies, "sure" and he starts to put hats in boxes, which got a good laugh for sure. The second Mr. Tigges began to sing, I knew there was a big problem as his voice was barely audible. The scene becomes a wonderful solo for Ms. Graves, "Monkey knows the tree to climb..." and we ultimately move from the hat factory to the boxing ring, a ribbon held up by four women, one in each corner. Emile knocks out opponent after opponent and newspaper headlines flash on the walls. Indeed the photographer's flashes cause a freeze so we can see what's going on, including his mother counting the money! During much of this, Older Emile wanders in and out and now he is above on his bed on the catwalk reliving all these experiences, yet always somewhat in his dementia by chanting his repeated haunting line, "This is my shoe..."
The next scene is in a Gay bar where Meredith Arawady plays the husky voiced matron in a black velvet dress and sequined coat with feathered boa cuffs and trim. She was impressive and all I wanted was more singing from this great character). The bar was full of drag queens that were so tall that when Emile danced with them his head was in their boobs; it was indeed funny. He sings about what is in his head and it is quite clear that he is indeed messed up mentally, as so many closeted folks can be, but even moreso in this time period.
There is a flashback to his childhood on the island where treble Samuel Grace plays Emile with the amazing Leah Hawkins as his guardian, Cousin Blanche who is quite more than abusive. She holds a bible and rants about how he is evil and forces him to hold concrete blocks over his head. Little Emile sings, "This night is long..." and we get a little better understanding of his early life and what a struggle he has gone through.
Meanwhile, as older Emile is seeing these flashbacks, Luis is reminding him that they have to go to a meeting. The scene changes to the boxing ring where Emile sings the poignant, "What makes a man a man?" which is about as lyrical and un-jazzy as this opera gets; I loved it. But as this work tends to be short-lived on the aria development, the mood changes as the fight with Emile's opponent, Benny, is about to begin and Benny is taunting him excessively with "maricon," etc. Harry reminds him and is joined in the ensemble, "Stay in the game," which tries to avoid Emile dealing with his own issues and everyone else telling him to just fight. He does so and knocks Benny out as the act ends.
Ms. Zambello announced that Samuel Schwartz had indeed been singing the role of Harry from the side of the stage and the curtain rose to reveal a bed hidden by a hospital-like partition. The news headlines are flashed that Benny was knocked out and in a coma near death and the Ring Announcer elaborates, "In this corner..." which is the only time Mr. Blalock really got to sing alone, and what a welcome opportunity it was. Again, we had many characters in the work, and while the leads were quite well developed, the smaller roles seemed to be left without much music. The partition is moved to show Benny in a coma, and again it is a scene that Older Emile is reliving as he sings "Hey Benny...I see you in the dark every night...." Mr. Robertson gets out of the bed to sing as well and is soon jumping tope at top speeds while he sings (it seems that the two works -Dead Man and this- have singers doing heavy-duty workouts while they sing!)
The best music and indeed developed scenes were given to Ms. Graves as well as Mr. Allicock and next Older Emile sings "Oh baby what do you think you're doing?" as his mother is joined by the two younger Emiles. Emile has now started living in the fast lane, so to speak, and has rejected everything and ultimately pushes his mother so she falls leading to a superb aria for Ms. Graves, "Far away long ago..." It's a survival song molded in the best blues style and Ms. Graves knocked us over with her sultry mezzo to boot.
The chorus is singing, "how does it feel to be a champ and kill a man" and we soon realize that Benny had been hurt in a previous fight and probably should not have even gone into the ring with Emile.
Emile has decided to marry and Leah Hawkins returns now as the woman of his "desires" but we are not sure if he loves her or it is simply a cover-up. The story moves quite fast and for this reason the second act seemed more cohesive to me and also had more music rather than story dialogue. Emiles mother and wife sing a duet in nightgowns reprising "The night is long..." theme while Emile heads the Gay bar and ultimately is seduced by a handsome young man superbly done by Andrew McLaughlin who has been playing smaller parts at WNO and often is featured in the new American works. Emile leaves the bar and four thugs gay bash him.
After the fact Emile sings that "I killed a man and the world wants to love me, but I love a man and the world wants to kill me," which got an amazing shout of applause and cheer from the audience mid-aria; it was a most reassuring moment for those of us who have indeed lived through these experiences.
Older Emile is now brought to Benny Jr. to meet with the son of the man he killed years before. It is a heartwarming moment as Emile seems to know why he is there, but needs to be coaxed by Luis. Benny Jr. tells him that forgiveness is not for him to give, but for Emile himself. I think we were all choked up so at this second.
Ultimately we have the entire cast on stage for a sort of finale but they all leave and older Emile is left singing once again "this is my shoe..." It's a great work, very poignant and truly has a message and speaks to so many people who have had issues with so many different things, not just homosexuality. I am very proud to say that our family has indeed arranged for tickets for underprivileged kids, specifically those with gender issues, to be able to get free tickets for the remainder of this run with performances through March 18.
I only can hope that more works like this and Dead Man come to the opera world as we really need them.
ALAN SAVADA of Washington, DC
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