Surrealistic opera by Dominick Argento Friday through Sunday in the Music Theatre
By Peter Alexander April 18 at 5:35 p.m.
Dominick Argento and John Donahue’s one-act opera Postcard from Morocco definitely doesn’t feature a postcard, it may not take place in Morocco, and it does not really have a plot.
What it does have is seven curious and colorful characters who collide and interact while waiting for a train that may, or may not—shades of Waiting for Godot—ever arrive. The next production of CU’s Eklund Opera Program, this unique opera will be presented Thursday through Sunday in the Music Theater space of the Imig Music Building (see details and ticket information below).
The student performances are stage directed by Leigh Holman and conducted by Nicholas Carthy. Stage design is by Ron Mueller, with costumes by Ann Piano based on drawings by Maya Hairston-Brown.
If you think this does not sound like any other opera you’ve seen, you might be right. “In a normal opera, we get a plot and hints of a character,” Carthy says. “And in this one we get the character and hints of a plot.”
“We wanted to dig into this piece because it was different,” Holman says. “It’s a way for our singers to dig into a whole genre of opera that’s completely different from other things they’ve done. They have the freedom to really search for the characters they want to develop.”
In many ways, it is an ideal piece for a university opera program. “As an educational project it is perfect,” Carthy says. “Everybody’s onstage all the time. Everybody has an aria. People sing alone, people sing together, people sing in ensemble—basically it’s all there, and [the opera] is so astonishingly well put together.”
Beyond the educational advantages, Holman emphasizes the sheer fun of the piece. “There is a ton of humor in it,” she says. “There are many really funny moments. [During rehearsals] we are just guffawing. There are some very serious moments too, but it’s a nice ride for the audience.”
For Holman one of the pleasures of performing Postcard from Morocco is the fact that it is not often done. “There are no traditions to adhere to,” she says. “That opens up the students and the direction and the music to just do what you would like to do with it. It gives [the singers] space to dig in and find things” in each character.
The central conceit of the opera is that each character is carrying some kind of luggage or box with them. These vary from a cornet case to a paint box to a cake box, but none of the characters is willing to show the others what’s in their luggage. “Everyone has their little secret,” Carthy says.
This is a clear metaphor for the “baggage” that we all carry with us through life, which is one of the covert subjects of the opera. “We put on a facade of who we are and what we do, but very few people know what’s really going on inside,” Holman says.
The characters—three women and four men—are deliberately kept mysterious, and only one of them has a name. “An eclectic bunch of characters demands an eclectic score,” Carthy says, and the score features a kaleidoscope of musical styles, from tap dancing to Richard Wagner. The latter appears several times, including a vaudeville scene ironically titled “Souvenirs de Bayreuth.”
Postcards is scored for a chamber ensemble of eight players, who will be costumed and placed onstage. In addition to the singing characters, there are two mimes, and “the maestro is one of the characters onstage, too,” Holman says. “He’s interacting [with the others].”
Carthy points out the many literary references in the libretto—everything from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, to James Joyce’s Ulysses, to The Odyssey, to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses. “You could spend a lifetime deconstructing it,” Carthy says. As for Stevenson’s poetry, “There’s little quotes, but [the opera] has nothing to do with that,” he says. “It’s far away from that.”
The CU production aims for a kind of timelessness and placelessness that is neither Morocco nor not Morocco. The sets and costumes will be as colorful as the characters, literally. Early in the design process, Holman studied the characters and assigned a color to each. “I had someone sketch little picture of the various things they supposedly hold in their containers, so you’ve got hats, shoes, a cornet,” she explains.
That artist, Maya Hairston-Brown, sent the sketches to a company that printed them on fabric, a different color for each character, and then costume designer Ann Piano turned the fabric into costumes. “This is really amazing,” Holman says. “We never loose sight of who’s who and who is connected to what.”
At the end of the opera, either a train arrives, or it doesn’t, depending on your interpretation. Everyone leaves the waiting room to go onto the outside platform, but, Holman says, “We don’t know if this is a fantasy, or what it is.”
You also get a small hint of what everyone has been hiding, but like so much else in the opera, it’s enigmatic. “It’s really up to the audience to figure out what it means,” Holman says.
“It’s Dadaist, it’s surrealist, it’s fun,” Carthy says, referring to artistic movements from the mid-20th century when the opera was written. “And it is such an incredible ride to go and see!”
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Postcard from Morocco by Dominick Argento and John Donahue
CU Eklund Opera Program
Leigh Holman, director, and Nicholas Carthy, conductor
7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 21
7:30 p.m. Friday, April 22
7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 23
2 p.m. Sunday, April 24
Music Theatre, CU Imig Music Building