Be prepared to hold onto your seat if — as you really should — go to see “Dog Days,” the new opera from composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek now in its world premiere run at the Alexander Kasser Theater in Montclair, N.J.
While the extremely dark, comedic piece is clearly a team effort (Jim Findlay‘s scenery, live video and video design lend the piece extra oomph), it’s Little’s powerfully dramatic music that makes the tale so compelling. The emotional score, with spiky, jarring moments, never loses its lyrical bearings. “Dog Days” signals Little as one of the great compositional voices of his generation.
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Focusing on one American family that has, so far, survived a vaguely described apocalypse, the opera grapples with questions of human relationships, their limits and even what it means to be human.
The opera is based on a short story of the same title by Judy Budnitz. While the opera makes the story arc understandable, I regret not reading the story before seeing the sold-out first performance at the Kasser, a jewel of a theater on the campus of Montclair State University.
It’s told primarily from the point of view of Lisa, a teen girl sung and acted masterfully by Lauren Worsham. She befriends a stray dog, who’s actually a man in a dog costume who seems to have adopted his guise to survive in the world gone mad. Despite disapproval from her father, Lisa adopts the dog-man (played on all fours and without a word, by the inimitable John Kelly), dubs him Prince and tells him secrets in well-written, and superbly sung arias.
But one of the most striking moments in the piece isn’t a conventional aria. It comes at the end of the first act, just before intermission, when Little made a risky choice to write an aria for Lisa not intended for her to sing.
Instead, the number presents Lisa writing a letter to her best friend, Marjorie. But Newspeak unexpectedly takes the lead, playing Little’s lovely melody while Lisa writes, with the lyrics projected onstage. She hums a bit, but otherwise, the instrumentals shine.
It’s a brilliant moment that provides some welcome space in the driving, energetic score.
Unlike many story-based operas, this one, with Vavrek’s taut libretto, fills out the story with a wholly new level of emotional involvement while playing, quite literally, with some of Budnitz’s writing.
Reading the story before seeing the opera won’t hurt your enjoyment at all. While I was more than satisfied by the emotional involvement provided by the work on stage, my rational side at times did want some concrete detail on how, exactly, this family of five (Howard, his unnamed wife, Lisa and sons Pat and Eliott) wound up living in what appears to be a bombed-out shell of a home. It seems that hardly anyone — other than two members of the military who visit late in the game — remains alive in their vicinity. One by one, their neighbors have disappeared, moving away or dying.
From the first, it’s obvious that they are subsisting on very little food — supplemented by occasional government airlifts. And those supplies dwindle by the moment, leading down what appears to be an inevitable path to starvation. But it’s not clear — partly because some of the sung exposition is hard to decipher — precisely what led to this state of affairs. Reading the story will set you up for that.
Staging is simple, with Little’s amplified ensemble Newspeak serving as the chamber orchestra under direction of Alan Pierson. The group clearly knows Little’s style well, and deliver it was incredible power.
Commissioned by Peak Performances, the show is directed by Robert Woodruff. It is produced by Peak Performances in association with Beth Morrison Projects
“Dog Days” continues with evening performances Friday through Sunday, Oct. 5- 7, at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University, One Normal Ave., Montclair, NJ. Tickets are $15. Click here for tickets, showtimes and further information, including charter bus transportation from Manhattan for $10.