The sole on-stage character in Dominick Argento’s one-act opera “A Water Bird Talk” isn’t given a name. He’s just “The Lecturer,” an anonymous gent whose off-stage wife has somehow made him the guest speaker at a ladies’ social club event.
The Lecturer’s subject: water birds (although he would have preferred to speak of spiders). And he’s got some notes and slides to share.
But the Lecturer shares more than his knowledge of our feathered friends. He shares his discomfort. He shares his awkwardness. And, when his wife temporarily leaves her vantage point offstage, he shares his deep sadness about the state of his home life.
Cliché? It could be. The long-suffering husband under the rule of the can’t-please wife certainly isn’t an original concept. It goes back to the Romans—if not to cave drawings. But as smartly written by Argento and as embodied by the outstanding Robert Orth in Indianapolis Opera’s production (which ran through Nov. 13 at the Basile Opera Center), the cliché is transcended through heartache, intimacy, big-hearted sincerity and theatricality.
Orth (an IO staple, particularly memorable in past Gilbert and Sullivan productions), and Argento are aided and abetted by members of the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra under the baton of James Caraher and beautiful video work by Barry Steele. The video—by turns subtle and (in a good way) overwhelming—goes well beyond the representational into something theatrically magical.
What begin as the Lecturer’s standard-issue, Audubon-like images grow, transform and, eventually, draw our sad-sack hero into them. I suspect I’m not the only patron whose first thought at seeing the podium-and-piano minimalist set was “cheap.” But, as established in last season’s “Carmen” and as proven here, IO understands that technology can transform the new Basile performance space into something special.
Of course, technology works best when it’s at the service of content. Here, the expert video production work seamlessly blends with performance and direction, becoming almost an additional character. It allows the emotional punch of “A Water Bird Talk” to take audiences by surprise, starting as comedy—and never losing its sense of humor—but evolving into something deeper.
That surprise is accentuated by the fact that “A Water Bird Talk” has been paired with “Bon Appetit!,” Lee Holby’s trifle of a short opera about Julia Child.
Yes, that Julia Child.
For many, the actual image of this ground-breaking chef has been replaced by the images of imitators—primarily “Saturday Night Live’s” Dan Aykroyd in Child drag (bleeding profusely but still insisting on saving the liver he/she is cooking) and Meryl Streep brilliantly becoming Child in the half-terrific film “Julie & Julia.” For some, I suspect, the decidedly light “Bon Appetit!” could easily pale next to such tour de forces.
I’ll admit to being a little underwhelmed myself, despite Emily Lodine’s solidly professional turn in the lead. The piece never truly soars in the way “A Water Bird Talk” does. It never strays from its source text—a chocolate-cake-making episode of her show. And vocally, it doesn’t offer many opportunities to show off. (It was originally written for Jean Stapleton, an accomplished musical-theater character actress, but not really an operatic one.)
But that’s part of its raison d’etre. “Bon Appetit!,” to be enjoyed, needs to be approached at that level: as a palate-cleanser.
Its resonance comes from the realization that it isn’t about exceptional or stand-out moments in its character’s life. It’s not about showing off (as, let’s be honest, a lot of opera is). Instead, it’s about the ordinary, day-to-day work of being oneself. That’s not always riveting, funny or moving. But it’s truthful.
And, yes, I know I just wrote about two operas and barely mentioned the music.•
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