Encore Michigan

Arbor Opera Theatre goes weird and wooly out of the gate

Review September 08, 2018 David Kiley

YPSILANTI, Mich.–If Max Bialystock in The Producers had had the libretto for Moondrunk Madness on his pile of would-be flops he was trying to produce, he would never have gone to jail. The debut production of Arbor Opera Theatre’s new artistic director Austin Stewart is one of the most hard-to-watch, ghastly things I have ever seen on stage.

The musicians, I should say, were excellent, and are the saving grace of what was otherwise a tragic choice for a company trying to get back on its feet.

The production is the concoction of Mr. Stewart, who, in collaboration with AEPEX Contemporary Performance (a non-profit that champions production of obscure works),  thought it was a good idea to do a mash-up of two eclectic works that are barely tolerable when done on their own. It is a “duo of monodramas” featuring Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire  and Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King. Mr. Austin calls them “strange works—for their content and music—tamed by an intimate theatrical experience, a nuanced contemporary translation, and a captivating staged exchange between clown and king as they traverse the space between poetic genius and madness.”

I will call combining two works like this into one mashed up performance simply a bold and terrible idea.

Schoenberg is hard to take in the best of times when everyone is performing at their best. As one opera performer I know put it, “It is painful even when done well.” Not just painful, but painful in German no less. Indeed, this headache of a piece barely allows the poor soprano, Amy Petrongelli, who has to chirp out the discordant sounds and shrieks to actually let us know she is, in fact, a soprano. Ditto John Daugherty, the poor sot who gets to portray King George in his final days of deranged madness. The libretto for Eight Songs is written off scraps of journal entries by the mad King that survived the decades after his grim death.

The songs derive from tunes played by an extant mechanical organ owned by George III, tunes that he attempted to train bullfinches to sing-hence the bird sounds that are part of the score. I understand. It is such a thing of pain, history, and absurdity connected to an infamous monarch, that I can see how it would inspire artists to make something of it. Indeed, I can even see how an artist would view George’s descent as a “beautiful thing.” But the result, save some lovely passages of music played by the orchestra that actually dates back to the time of the King, conducted by Daniel Brottman, is the feeling of watching and hearing a man go mad from inside his head. Bravo?

Thank God it was only fifty minutes long. I began checking my watch after seven minutes, and the minutes seemed like hours.

I know. There are those who will call me a philistine. There were people standing and clapping at the end of the performance. But it was also opening night in a small space, and I can’t account for how many were friends, family, and staff.

And I’ve also been around long enough to know that there are arts patrons simply attracted to this kind of thing; who just like stuff that’s weird, and the weirder the better. The less conventional, the better. The farther away from La Boheme and The Sound of Music (two previous AOT productions), the better. There is something to be said for not doing another production of La Boheme or Tosca. But I would also point out to Mr. Stewart that Michigan Opera Theatre put on a sublime opera, 27, about Gertrude Stein, last summer in a small venue, The Arthur Miller Theatre in Ann Arbor, with a small cast and low budget. You can do unconventional and unique without inflicting.

As I endured this production like waterboarding, the thought in the back of my mind is that Mr. Austin is trying to raise Arbor Opera Theatre from its recent troubled past of mismanagement. And this is your first pitch?

The rest of the AOT’s season is of Orpheus & Euridice (January 11 & 13) co-produced with the Kerrytown Concert House, and a “fresh adaptation” of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann (May 17–19). I’ll go see them with an open mind. They have to be better than this.

Whereas the company used to perform in the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre at U of M, Mr. Austin has staked out much smaller venues, hoping no doubt that the first two productions will help lead to full houses when he hits The Arthur Miller Theatre in the spring. Again, he is not to be faulted for opting for smaller-stage productions with fewer costs in costume, set and actors, especially given the financial woes he inherited.

But he is, perhaps, to be faulted for opening a new restaurant with the operatic equivalent of extreme offal as his first-night special.

Bialystock would have loved it. Let’s hope for better things in the next two productions.