It can be hard for a modern audience to relate to opera. It’s not often in our lives that we encounter a countess, death by consumption or a lover in disguise. But almost every day, we encounter family. The first-year members of the Maryland Opera Studio explored the joy and challenges that come with caring for our loved ones in their staged reading of A Family Reunion on Friday, February 20, 2015.
“Everyone’s taking care of somebody in that piece,” said librettist William Moses. “It’s that kind of issue that holds true for the sandwich generation.”
The presentation of the opera is a reunion in itself. Moses and Composer Chris Patton embarked on their fifth music-theatre collaboration in 1992. Inspired by his wife’s biennial family gatherings, Moses wanted to write about what happened during family reunions. Scenes from early versions of the opera were performed around the D.C. area, including a concert reading of Act I performed by the Maryland Opera Studio with full orchestra in 2003. The pair put the project hold to focus on other work, and in 2006, Patton died suddenly after a short illness, leaving the opera unfinished.
Determined to bring the opera to life, Moses didn’t give up. In spring 2014, he worked with Patton’s wife Vivienne and University of Maryland professor Bill Evans to comb through Patton’s music library, poring through old computers, new computers, thumb drives and papers to find any remainders of the music. Local composer George Fulginiti-Shakar composed the missing sequences in Act II. “His task was to blend in with Chris’s style and not just mimic [it]…he had a very distinctive style,” Moses said. In 2014, the opera premiered at the In Series in Washington, D.C.
“Chris and I were really intent on writing operas that were approachable, both by young performers and by audience members,” Moses said.
And Reunion succeeds. Though some scenes were cut from the Maryland Opera Studio’s reading, the young performers told a cohesive and poignant story about an estranged family coming together to care for their mother, Alma (Nicole Levesque), who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Eldest daughter Ruth (Chelsea Davidson) is quietly weary, having spent “the best years” of her life caring for her mother. She wants her siblings to help with her care, but stubborn Elizabeth (Louisa Waycott) is busy dealing with her alcoholic husband Al (Daren Jackson); and single mother Ursula (Laynee Dell Woodward) is juggling two jobs and two kids, rebellious Milo (Alec Feiss) and cheeky Jason (Ava Wing). Then there’s Ollie Jr. (Anthony Eversole), the prodigal son, who returns home still stinging from the death of his own partner.
Levesque captured both Alma’s love for her family – she is intent that this reunion will be documented with a family photo in coordinated outfits – and her genuine confusion, present in her lingering belief that her husband Ollie Sr. (Matthew Hill) is still alive. Eversole’s performance was a real highlight; his clear, resonant baritone was especially powerful in his duet with Levesque in the second act. Davidson, Waycott and Woodward captured the sisters’ complex relationship as they remembered and tried to rekindle their old rapport in “Sisters,” a girl-group-style trio that feels genuine and real. While the part of Jason was originally written for a young boy, Wing took on the pants role with humor and gusto, and her scenes with Jackson conveyed a deep desire for a father figure.
Nick Olcott’s staging was simple yet effective – elaborate costumes, props, and flashy sets weren’t necessary to tell the story. Music director Justina Lee accompanied the opera on piano, which felt appropriate for such an intimate performance.
With tender familiarity, A Family Reunion touches the heart. I can only imagine what a full production would bring.
A Family Reunion played one night only on Friday, February 20, 2015 in the Gildenhorn Recital Hall at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center – at the intersection of Stadium Drive and Route 193 (University Boulevard), in College Park, MD. For tickets to future Clarice events, go to their calendar of events,