"Come, just as we might be struck by lightning
That thunder does not announce,
That ignites suddenly
And deals its blow with doubled force."
– "Komm, o Tod, von Nacht umgeben," Hugo Wolf
As the glow of light graces delicately draped white cloth across the back wall of the theatre, two singers slowly process upstage, embraced by dancers representing the emotional anchor of each character's storyline. Soon, these women will be locked in two very different, life-changing circumstances – one struck down by grief, the other lifted by love – and will express their feelings in song as the dancers depict the inner turmoil that accompanies the loss of a beloved parent and the lyricism that goes with being carried away by romance.
In We Might Be Struck by Lightning, Rebecca Herman, founding artistic producer of LOLA (Local Opera Local Artists), takes a unique approach to presenting art song. She's created two original storylines and woven through them compositions by Fauré, Brahms, Schubert, and others that relate to the characters' circumstances. Alongside the vocalists who perform the songs in character are dancers portraying other characters, their movements choreographed by Rebecca Whitehurst. It makes for a bold musical journey, one that unapologetically defies traditional notions of art song and opera.
The first storyline centers on Claudia, who must rush to the side of her dying mother, hauntingly portrayed by dancer Mari Akita. The dark figure of Death looms in the hospital room, extracting life from her mother's frail and broken body. Once the woman loses her battle with Death, Claudia is racked with a grief that threatens her mortality. She eventually welcomes Death's embrace to quiet her torn heart and troubled soul.
Mezzo-soprano Claudia Chapa has an arresting stage presence, and her powerful resonance, coupled with her warm timbre and deep understanding of the material, is spellbinding. In Dvorák's "Songs My Mother Taught Me," she sings of a child's cherished, mournful memory with lovely, expressive color in her anguish. And in Schubert's aptly chosen "Der Tod und das Mädchen," Chapa's potent approach in her confrontation with Death – danced boldly by Erica Gionfriddo – adds depth to the drama. The care that Herman has taken in selecting the art songs for each scene is exemplified in "Gestillte Sehnsucht," a Brahms lied used here as Claudia's plea for the gentle wind and birdsong to whisper away her life. Chapa is a world-class talent whose vocal power is matched by her organic and genuine approach to the character, and watching her is a meditative experience.
Herman balances Claudia's tragic tale of loss with a story of triumph in love. Cristina Maria is trapped in a loveless relationship and riddled with depression and self-doubt. At first, she sings of lost love in Debussy's "Romance," then in Schumann's "Was will die einsame Träne" reveals that her heart has hardened and that she is no longer able to weep for a love that extinguished long ago. But she meets a lovely stranger at the funeral of her friend's mother – the only scene in which the two storylines merge – and instantly falls in love. That very day, Cristina Maria leaves her fiancé (dancer Clay Moore) and begins a passionate relationship with her new love, known only as Girl, performed exquisitely by Sarah Annie Navarrete. The women celebrate their wedding day and joyfully begin their lives together at the very moment that Claudia submits her soul to Death.
Soprano Cristina María Castro elegantly sings a variety of lieder and mélodies, excellently chosen to express all of the sensual and passionate elements of her character's experience. One highlight is in Cristina Maria's proposal as she sings Fauré's "Notre Amour": "Our love is light ... something eternal like all that has been touched by the fiery wing of a victorious god, like all that comes from the heart."
The collaboration between Herman and Whitehurst is fresh and unique, and I hope to see more innovative work like it. Opera has a friend in LOLA. Keep an eye on this organization; we can expect more great performances to come.
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