Opera Reviews: THE DWARF & HIGHWAY 1, USA (LA Opera)

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by Michael M. Landman-Karny on February 26, 2024

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


LA opera presented a unique double bill of relative rarities, Alexander Zemlinski’s Der Zwerg and William Grant Still’s Highway 1, USA. Zwerg’s Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) was suppressed by the Nazis due to his Judaism, and Still’s opera Highway 1, USA is little known due to both racial discrimination and to American audiences historically preferring European opera to American opera.

Highway 1, USA

In the grand tapestry of American music, few threads are woven as richly and with as much dexterity as those of William Grant Still, the distinguished “Dean of African-American Composers.” Born in 1895 in the Mississippi Delta and reared in the cultural crossroads of Little Rock, Arkansas, Still shattered the racial ceilings of classical music, marking a series of historic firsts that redefined the American symphonic and operatic landscapes. His achievements span from being the first African American to wield the conductor’s baton over a major American symphony orchestra to having his operas staged and celebrated by leading companies and televised across the nation.

The Ensemble

Among Still’s operatic oeuvre, Highway 1, USA stands as a particularly poignant reflection of his genius, marrying the narrative depth of opera with the soulful rhythms of blues and jazz to tell a distinctly American story. The opera, which premiered in 1963 under the title A Southern Interlude before adopting its current, more evocative name, unfolds in the verdant backdrop of a small town cradled by Highway 1 in the southern United States. The story centers on Bob and Mary, proprietors of a humble service station and café, and their brother Nate, whose dreams stretch beyond the confines of their provincial life toward the promise of urban opulence. Bob and Mary have invested much of their income in supporting the education of Bob’s younger brother, Nate, fulfilling a promise Bob made to his dying mother. As Nate continues to live with them, his ingratitude and arrogance begin to create tension and drive a wedge between the couple, who start to question their sacrifices and contemplate their own future​.

Norman Garrett as Bob and Nicole Heaston as Mary

Highway 1, USA is not merely an opera; it is a narrative vessel, charting the hopes, sacrifices, and love of its protagonists against the broader canvas of African-American aspiration. Still’s score is a thematic integration, weaving blues and folk melodies seamlessly into the classical fabric of opera to underscore the cultural and emotional landscapes of his characters. The music serves not just as a backdrop but as a vital character in its own right, amplifying the drama and lending a universal resonance to the deeply personal story on stage.

Nicole Heaston as Mary and Norman Garrett as Bob

This opera is a testament to Still’s ability to forge a new lexicon in American music—one that bridges the presumed chasm between the classical tradition and the rich vernacular of African-American musical expression. Highway 1, USA is both a celebration and a critique, a lens through which the mid-20th-century African-American experience is rendered with all its complexities, challenges, and beauty. Through the medium of opera, Still invites the audience into a world where the personal is political, where dreams collide with reality, and where music transcends as the ultimate storyteller.

Deborah Nansteel as Aunt Lou and Nicole Heaston as Mary

Director Kenza Schaal sets the action of the 1963 opera in the 1950s. The set by Christopher Myers is impressive, showing a 1950s technicolor kitchen and living room set, a Googie-styled gas station and pop-art billboards. (Amy Rubin and Cheyanne Williams co-scenic designers.) Also, Schaal has personified two folk-lore critters that Mary sings about: A fox (Kiara Benn) and a rabbit (Cheyanne Williams), tricksters that were popularized in the Uncle Remus tales as Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox. It’s a bit confusing having these added characters dance and move set pieces, but they are manifestations of the trickery Mary sees in Nate.

Deborah Nansteel (Aunt Lou), Nicole Heaston (Mary), Norman Garrett (Bob),
Chaz'men Williams-Ali (Nate) and Alan Williams (Sheriff)

As Bob, baritone Norman Garrett (last seen in LA Opera’s Omar) has a mellifluous deep voice and deftly handles the opera’s naturalistic acting demands.  Soprano Nicole Heaston as Mary possesses a strong gorgeous soprano, stage presence and the acting skills of a natural musical theatre performer. Tenor Chaz’men Ali‘s underpowered bad guy-turn as Nate failed to catch fire during his brief stage time; he seems miscast.

Cheyanne Williams (Hare) and Kiara Benn (Fox)

The orchestra under James Conlon ably managed Still’s score, giving the music a Gershwin-esque flair. While the music is accessible and is beautifully orchestrated, the simplistic plot and a clunky libretto by the composer’s wife Verna Arey failed to make the case for this opera’s revival.

Der Zwerg (The Dwarf)

This 1922 opera by the Austrian composer Alexander Zemlinsky is a work that demands attention not for its grandeur or spectacle, but for the emotional depth and psychological complexity it conveys through its music and narrative. Zemlinsky, born in Vienna in 1871, occupied a unique position in the turn-of-the-century musical scene, bridging the worlds of late Romanticism and the burgeoning modernist movement. His music, richly textured and harmonically adventurous, often explored themes of love, obsession, and identity, reflecting his own personal and artistic struggles.

The Ensemble (set by Ralph Funicello, costumes by Lindo Cho)

The plot of the opera (based on a story by Oscar Wilde) revolves around a Spanish princess, Donna Clara, who receives an unusual birthday gift: a dwarf who is unaware of his own physical appearance. The dwarf falls in love with the princess, believing she reciprocates his feelings. The tragedy unfolds as he is confronted with his reflection for the first time, leading to a devastating realization and, ultimately, his death. Zemlinsky’s opera is not just a tale of unrequited love (mirroring Zemlinksy’s own youthful, failed love affair); it is a poignant exploration of the cruelty of illusion and the pain of self-awareness.

Rodrick Dixon in the title role

The score is notable for its ability to mirror the emotional landscape of the characters, weaving a musical tapestry that shifts from the exuberance of the Spanish court to the intimate despair of the dwarf. The opera’s orchestration is lush and detailed, offering a vivid backdrop to the drama unfolding on stage. Yet, for all its musical sophistication, Der Zwerg remains a work that is appreciated more for its intellectual and emotional resonance than for any sense of melodic immediacy or thematic accessibility.

Erica Petrocelli (front right) as Donna Clara

The set design by Ralph Funicello and costume design by Lindo Cho brilliantly evoke the opulence and decadence of a royal court, seemingly inspired by Diego Velázquez’s 1656 painting Las Meninas, which depicts a scene in the palace of King Philip IV of Spain. Their sumptuousness sets a stark contrast to the emotional turmoil that unfolds.

Emily Magee as Ghita & Sarah Saturnino, Deepa Johnny and Kathleen O'Mara as the Three Maids

The opera’s strength lies in its ability to confront uncomfortable truths about beauty, love, and self-perception, themes that remain relevant today. The score’s adherence to late-Romantic idioms, combined with forays into Schoenbergian atonality, provides a vivid sonic palette that enhances the drama’s intensity. Audiences who are looking for earworm melodies, however, will be disappointed. It demands attentive listening. Musically, the production shines, with the orchestra under Conlon’s baton delivering Zemlinsky’s richly textured score with precision and sensitivity. The orchestra gives it their dedicated all in this one act. According to Conlon, Der Zwerg is his favorite twentieth-century score, and he has recorded it twice, once on CD with the Cologne Opera and a second time with LA Opera on DVD.

Erica Petrocelli and Rodrick Dixon

This revival of the 2008 production, however, ends up occasionally struggling to maintain the narrative’s momentum, with some scenes feeling more static than dynamic, perhaps a reflection of the opera’s challenging structure rather than the performance itself.

Rodrick Dixon

The cast, for their part, deliver commendable performances, with Rodrick Dixon as the dwarf offering a particularly moving portrayal that captures the character’s innocence, love, and eventual despair with poignant clarity. The dwarf’s realization of his own appearance, a pivotal moment in the opera, is handled with a mix of tenderness and brutality that is heart-wrenching. The Infanta (young princess) is played by Erica Petrocelli who sings beautifully and gave a masterclass in acting as the spoiled princess who heartlessly toys with the naïve dwarf. Kristinn Sigmundsson and Emily Magee, highly accomplished world-class singers, give committed and beautifully sung performances as, respectively, the Court Chamberlain Don Estoban and Ghita, a good-hearted chambermaid who takes pity on the Dwarf. Los Angeles Opera resident artists Kathleen O’Mara (Berta in LAO’s Barber of Seville), Sarah Saturnino (Emilia in LAO’s Otello) and Deepa Johnny produced radiant sounds in the small roles of the three maids. All three are rising stars and I look forward to seeing them take on bigger roles in the coming years.

Kristinn Sigmundsson as Don Estoban

Der Zwerg is a testament to the power of music and storytelling to explore the depths of the human condition, offering a mirror to our most profound fears and desires. It is an opera that does not seek to entertain so much as it aims to provoke thought and evoke emotion, standing as a monument to the complexity of the human heart. Despite my quibbles with the direction, I highly recommend this production of Der Zwerg.

Erica Petrocelli and Rodrick Dixon

Overall, this was a highly enjoyable evening and I recommend this double-bill to all opera aficionados.

photos by Cory Weaver

Erica Petrocelli with Tiffany Townsend and Madeleine Lyon as her Two Companions

Highway 1, USA | Der Zwerg
LA Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 North Grand Ave.
ends on March 17, 2024
for tickets, call 213. 972.8001 or visit LA Opera

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