Opera is a living art form in the hands and voices of Rhymes With Opera, a Baltimore and NYC-based ensemble. Rhymes With Opera (RWO) has been one of my favorite groups as I have been covering the Baltimore music scene over the last couple of years. They have such a special hold over my ears because of their unpretentious expansion in all vocal things, contemporary and experimental. They do the work. They are not only promoting young, excellent artists. They also commission and collaborate with exciting and vibrant composers without a stranglehold over creative output. RWO is also mindful of the connections between performance space and audience which was fully perceptible during their recent Baltimore outing Saturday, December 15th with Numbers / Dates at the 2640 Space.
Opera may be a living art form with RWO, but it is far from traditional concepts of opera. However, when boiled down to the foundations, this season is the closet RWO has come to the opera house of yore. With the addition of Victoria Crutchfield (stage director and video designer), Elizabeth A. Coco (lighting designer and production manager), Lux Haaz (costume designer), and Jenny Ainsworth (stage manager), RWO is reaching evermore toward the “synthesis of arts” tenet of opera.
Even with the lights, video, and dramatic venue (2640 Space), it is still RWO’s commitment to provocative music and the superb musicians that perform it that reigns. The three works presenteda jaunt through a wide field of emotions from anxiety to happiness. Travis Sullivan and Jamia Wilson‘s Three Modern Pieces (2012), the first piece of the evening, was a vehicle for the singers to demonstrate the lyrical qualities of their voices. Bonnie Lander‘s sanguine soprano voice charmed the ear while belying the serious and dark texts in Mannequin and Legislate Rape. In the second of the three pieces, Ode to Sallie Mae, Elisabeth Halliday channels a sultry torch singer in a lyric that any MM knows all too well — “only 50 more years til this debt’s paid.” Robert Maril‘s ready and smooth baritone deserves a mention even in this short entry into the duet.
It was enjoyable to hear Ruby Fulton‘s (RWO co-artistic director) compositional voice again in her collaboration with Jeff Brunell, the ballad of james parry (2008). Their piece deals with the 1990s internet celebrity of James Parry who was known for obsessively posting to usenet forums. What makes his story so interesting is that he suffered from prosopagnosia (“face blindness“) which is the inability to recognize faces. Originally written for two live choruses, the ballad of james parry was performed on Saturday with pre-recorded chorus voices and live solo voices. Except for a few moments of “too visible” counting from the soloists, the cacophony of voices conveyed a musical commixture of real and virtual worlds.
The highlight of the evening, to this taste, was Thomas Limbert‘s Numbers / Dates (2009-12). The piece was inspired by recordings of actors verbalizing “semantically neutral” numbers and dates in different emotional senses. The truly fascinating part of Numbers / Dates is that this text, though easily recognizable to the ear, takes on nonsense syllable qualities. The text exists in a special state that the ear perceives as nonsense syllable until the singers alight upon a date to which one has a connotation. The musical gestures are no more atonal or agitated than the other works programmed. However, it is the repetitive nature of the musical gestures, the performers’ repeated physical action, and their projected emotions that had audience members squirming at times. George Lam, conductor and co-artistic director, held together not just Numbers / Dates but the two other works as well with a calm charm.
This most recent performance by Rhymes With Opera continues my love affair with their noble music-making. My feeling that opera is a living art form in Baltimore City is renewed by their musician’s commitment to the craft and the organization’s mission to expand the repertoire. I, for one, wish them many happy returns.