“Dog Days” Opera Review – A Chicago-Area Premiere

Dog Days-Olivia Prendergast (Lisa), Emma Rothfield (Mother), Jeffrey Goldberg (Howard), Pablo David Laucerica (Elliot) and Daniel Fleming (Pat)-photo by Noah Frick-Alofs

The Chicago- area  premiere of “Dog Days”, an opera composed by David T. Little with libretto by Royce Vavrek is taking place as Northwestern University’s Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music, together with the school’s Institute for New Music, presents a limited run Nov. 21 to 24 at the Ryan Opera Theater, located in the Ryan Center for the Musical Arts at 70 Arts Circle Drive on the Evanston campus.

Dog Days-Olivia Prendergast (Lisa)-photo by Noah Frick-Alofs

This production marks the first collaboration between Bienen’s Institute for New Music and the opera program. “Dog Days” is directed by Joachim Schambergerand features the Bienen School’s Contemporary Music Ensemble, conducted by Alan Pierson. Pierson conducted the world premiere of “Dog Days” in 2012 at Peak Performance at Montclair State University in New Jersey in association with Beth Morrison Projects.

I entered the Ryan Opera Theater not quite knowing what to expect. This opera is based on the dystopian short story by Judy Budnitz.  How disturbing would this be? What would I learn and what would I see?

Lisa and the dog man, Photo: Noah Frick-Alofs

Bienen senior Morgan Mastrangelo performs the role of Prince, a man dressed in a dog suit who has a terrific bark has an explanation of the opera with which I agree. “What this piece really does is shine a light on how our humanity changes as we undergo hardship,” Mastrangelo said. “In this society, as resources become scarcer, it asks how humans will maintain compassion in the face of scarcity and how we treat those who are lesser and more vulnerable than us.”

The story tells about a war raging in a not-so-distant future and a starving American family that unravels, as we watch all semblance of a civilization they attempt to hold together slip away. The discovery a man in a dog suit on their property, howling for scraps is the opening and the dog’s behavior, appearance and disappearance asks questions for both the characters and the audience: Is it madness, delusion or instinct that guides us through trying times? Where is the line between human and animal?

Waiting for food to be dropped, Photo:hoto by Noah Frick-Alofs

This work is not uplifting but something about the blend of music, the beautiful voices, the outstanding set and facing one of the worst things one can imagine, was surprisingly energizing and rewarding.

The venue is beautifully designed with very comfortable seats.  The set was outstanding, the orchestra, which was hidden was comprised of unusual instruments, with cataclysmic sounds.  The performers handled the acting and singing expertly.

The brothers, Photo:hoto by Noah Frick-Alofs

 Some insightful comments –

“It was exciting to revisit some of those moments and remember the act of creating Lisa and Prince and the boys,” Little said.  

“I grew up with a lot of different musical influences. I would go from ‘Oklahoma!’ one minute to Napalm Death the next,” he said. “These extremes defined my musical language. I feel the expressive potential of each of those stylistic worlds. I think partially why I got into opera is that it’s a world that can support this kind of aesthetic variety because you are telling a story.”

“‘Dog Days’ is gritty and provides many provocative and shocking moments,” Schamberger said. “The music language that David found for the story is incredible – it really impacts you. Unlike classical operas, ‘Dog Days’ dives into the action quickly without a need for exposition, which makes it a great first opera for the uninitiated.”

The dog is threatening, Photo:hoto by Noah Frick-Alofs

Audience advisory: This production contains graphic violence, explicit language and adult situations.

 “Dog Days” performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets are $18 for the general public and $8 for full-time students with valid ID and are available online at concertsatbienen.org, by phone at 847-467-4000 or in person at the Bienen School ticket office located at the southeast entrance of Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle Drive. Ticket office hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, and noon to 3 p.m. Saturdays.

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