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5 Operas in 72 Hours: A Philadelphia Festival Is a Test of Survival

“We Shall Not Be Moved,” by the composer Daniel Bernard Roumain and the librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, inventively directed by Bill T. Jones, has generated the most attention, for tackling roiling issues of race and inequality. (It’s playing next month at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, en route to London).


The mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack in the title role of Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell’s Victorian drama “Elizabeth Cree.”

Steven Pisano

This raw, engrossing work looks back at the deadly 1985 incident when Philadelphia police, following several fractious standoffs, dropped bombs on a rowhouse that housed Move, a group of black separatists. Rather that revisiting the incident directly, the opera depicts a crisis in the lives of five North Philadelphia teenagers in 2017, runaways who form their own family. They take refuge in an abandoned house that turns out to be the former location of Move, inhabited by slinking dancer ghosts.

Mr. Roumain skillfully folds gospel, funk, jazz and contemporary classical idioms into the score. In a post-performance conversation with the audience, he said he hopes the piece “changes the notion” of what an opera can be.

It does, though less because of the hybrid musical style than the inclusion of long stretches of spoken text, accompanied by variously hazy, reflective and agitated stirrings in a seven-player instrumental ensemble. Mr. Joseph’s poetic words, whether sung or spoken powerfully, animate the storytelling, especially as delivered by Lauren Whitehead, a poet and dramaturge. She is riveting as Un/Sung, who becomes the motherly protector of this hurting teenage family.

The fine bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock brings aching intensity to John Henry, who is critically wounded during a panicked confrontation with Glenda (Kirstin Chávez), a Latina police officer: a “brown girl,” as she sings, who “bleeds blue.” The clarion-voice countertenor John Holiday breaks your heart as John Blue, a transgender man embraced by this new family.

At one point, bitterly reflecting that it hardly matters that the public schools can’t open on time, Un/Sung says, “On the first day, our cafeteria would still have smelled like a decaying future.” At its best, this opera comes across as an anguished requiem.

The notion of what opera can be may have been jostled even more by David Hertzberg’s “The Wake World,” based on a fairy tale by Aleister Crowley. The opera was produced jointly with the Barnes Foundation, where the premiere took place on Monday.


Tamino (the tenor Ben Bliss) in a staging of “The Magic Flute” inspired by silent film.

Steven Pisano

Mr. Hertzberg, who also wrote the libretto, said in a program note that the Barnes had always seemed to him less a museum than a “strange and wondrous temple exhumed from outside of time.” He has written an opera to match his feelings about the place — a fantastical, convoluted tale. We meet young Lola (Maeve Höglund, in a gleaming performance of a daunting role) and her androgynous Fairy Prince (Rihab Chaieb, a charismatic mezzo-soprano), along with a range of otherworldly characters and a menagerie of choristers dressed in body tights with face paint.

Though the strands of this metaphysical story come unraveled, the music is engrossing. Just five instrumentalists produce wondrous colors and sonorities. The score, spiked with modernist elements, makes Mr. Hertzberg seem a 21st-century Ravel. The choral writing is eerily voluptuous. The performers, directed by R. B. Schlather, often walked amid attendees, who sat, stood and milled about. (Talk about engaging your audience.)

The third premiere is “Elizabeth Cree,” by the composer Kevin Puts (a Pulitzer Prize winner for his affecting opera “Silent Night”) and the librettist Mark Campbell. Gruesome yet oddly entertaining, and based on a novel by Peter Ackroyd, it tells of a London woman raised in poverty by an abusive mother.

When she’s finally orphaned, Elizabeth (the vibrant mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack) seeks solace in a London music hall, where she is adopted by the eccentric players, becomes a star, marries a playwright and critic named John Cree (a menacing Troy Cook) and is hanged for murdering him. Mr. Puts and Mr. Campbell dare to tell this bizarre story in a 90-minute work of 29 short, urgent scenes that keep shifting in time between 1878 and 1881. Mr. Puts’s music blithely segues from Felliniesque evocations of British music hall skits to Gothic horror melodrama.

The festival’s production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” a traveling staging originally seen at the Komische Oper in Berlin, could shake up the field as much as the challenging new works. The lesson here for other companies? If you’re going to go with projections, go all the way.

This madcap staging, with singers (including the splendid lyric tenor Ben Bliss as Tamino) interacting with detailed filmed and animated images, evokes the era of silent movies. Papageno (a show-stealing turn by the baritone Jarrett Ott) looks like Buster Keaton. Pamina (Rachel Sterrenberg) could be Louise Brooks. And, instead of delivering the opera’s spoken dialogue out loud, the singers, like actors in a silent film, mouth the words while English titles are projected on the screen against which the action is presented.

Opera Philadelphia’s season will continue in the new year with two stand-alone productions: George Benjamin’s “Written on Skin” and Bizet’s “Carmen.” But this annual festival will be its brand. It may be a risk, but it’s one well worth taking.

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