Dog Days isn’t your typical opera. No unrequited love, no redemption, no slapstick humor, and the main character doesn’t sing a single line. But this new work by composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek wasn’t created to cater to traditionalists. To be performed in April along with Hamlet and La Traviata as part of the Fort Worth Opera’s 2015 festival, Dog Days is an unrelenting psychological thriller set to one of the most refreshingly original scores in contemporary music.
Last Thursday, a few dozen people at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth were treated to selections from Dog Days, along with comments from Little, Vavrek, FWO general director Darren Woods, and Beth Morrison, whose titular company co-produced Dog Days’ world premiere with Peak Performances at Montclair State University in New Jersey in 2012.
Based on a short story of the same name by Judith Budnitz, the libretto follows an American family in a post-apocalyptic world struggling to retain their dignity when a man appears at their home dressed as a dog begging for scraps.
If the performances were any indication, FWO’s Dog Days is going to be a hit. With piano accompaniment by FWO’s Stephen Carey, FWO soprano Maren Weinberger tackled “No man in his right mind” as Lisa, the girl who eventually forms a bond with the man-dog Prince. “We can be friends, if you want,” she sang against eerie repeated patterns, revealing Lisa to be a girl desperately longing for friendship but scared to death of getting her wish. The music covered the range of the piano, which oscillated between syrupy melodies and dense Stravinsky-esque harmonies while also hinting at the depth of the actual orchestration. Rather than reverting to previous choruses, the music evolved alongside the unfolding drama and ended with bell-like tolling of haunting, dissonant chords.
The other song was FWO mezzo soprano Clara Nieman’s rendition of “My legs won’t walk.” As Lisa’s mother Marnie, Nieman brilliantly captured the torment of a woman whose starved and emaciated body could barely move. Unlike in the previous song, the accompaniments here were sparse. (Little later clarified that most of the sound will be electronic atmospherics.) Driven by Nieman’s anguish-filled voice, the music built to a powerful climax –– “walk me into bed” –– before collapsing.
Woods said he was initially hesitant to meet with Morrison during a hurried visit to New York City two years ago.
“Well, you’d better make time,” he recalled her saying.
And Woods was glad he did, though he never thought he’d actually present an opera this way, he said. FWO has always built its productions from scratch. But then Woods saw the work firsthand: “I said, ‘I want to do this.’ ”
FWO’s production will include the original cast and musicians from the world premiere, including the New York City-based new-music ensemble Newspeak, whose instrumentation runs from the conventional (strings, woodwinds) to the outré (electric guitar, synths).
One of the biggest challenges in writing the opera, Vavrek said, was stretching a short story to two hours. Single sentences, he said, had to be expanded to two minutes. That job was done with a reverential dedication to Budnitz’ original meanings plus references to Vavrek’s personal life. One song, for example, makes mention of Cheez Whiz.
“I don’t think that was in the original story,” Morrison said with a smile, turning toward Vavrek.
“You bring elements of your own life into the work,” he said with a laugh. “When I was in elementary school, we made aquariums out of Cheez Whiz jars.”
For any story to succeed, the panelists said, theatergoers must be able to relate to it on some level.
Vavrek noted that Hurricane Sandy hit not long after Dog Days premiered. During the storm, the New Yorker came to realize that the opera’s setting is not too outlandish. People in a natural disaster, he said, are just “a few generators away from being in a tough place.”
When to leave a dire situation and how we treat one another in such situations are questions that get at what it means to be human, Morrison said.
“And how long we can hold on to that in the face of dire circumstances,” Little added.
Visionary Awards Are Here
In anticipation of our 4th Annual Visionary Awards, to be awarded to three outstanding up-and-coming Fort Worth artists in various disciplines, Rahr & Sons Brewing Company is once again crafting a special beer for us, the Visionary Brew. But there’s a little problem. We don’t have a label. To remedy the situation, we’re calling on artists to submit original pieces of previously unpublished artwork suitable for public consumption (no porn, no violence, no profanity) to appear on every bottle of Visionary Brew. The theme this year is barbecue. (Think: smoky, sweet, peppery.) You may enter as many original previously unpublished pieces as desired, and we encourage resubmission of previous entries. There is no entry fee, and submissions may be made by e-mailing a PDF of your original previously unpublished artwork to Weekly associate editor Anthony Mariani at firstname.lastname@example.org. Deadline is midnight Friday, Feb. 13. Finalists will be announced soon, and Rahr founder and CEO Fritz Rahr will select the winning label at the Visionary Awards party soon at the Rahr brewery (701 Galveston Ave.). –– Anthony Mariani