American as apple pie and Jell-O, NFL and Prozac, the Center for Contemporary Opera launched its 27th season on Thursday night with an intimate, Atelier performance of poet and librettista and generally awesome J.D. McClatchy & composer Michael Dellaira's new opera, The Secret Agent. If you were lucky enough to snag one of the quickly-selling-out tickets to the double-header (Thursday & Friday night), you coukd get an all-access, VIP pass to an intimate theater full of the brightest lights of the contemporary opera scene.
O the pulse of the contemporary opera world (presenting Atelier versions of groundbreaking compositions and hosting workshops to assist new librettisti -- our favorite being called "Libretto Slam"): the CCO is an arts organization that defies categorization. Nurturing the purely-American opera scene (and some musical theater) since 1982, it's now led by General Director capitano James E. Schaeffer, a disarming contemporary music scholar (and former conductor & bassoonist) who looks like he'd be equally at home holding-down tequila shots at a Livestock Convention or shaping the tempo in a European opera house.
The first public reading of McClatchy's libretto went off like a handful of really brainy firecrackers, the inaugural glimpse into the latest from his successful libretti body-of-work (Saylor's Orpheus Descending, Picker's Emmeline, Maazel's 1984, Goldenthal's Grendel). Based on Joseph Conrad's novel of the same name, The Secret Agent was -- JD knows the lesson of the Greeks by heart -- full of unflinching pathos. The tale of suicide, murder, omfgterrar, and political corruption filled the libretto with drama that was at the same time pulpy and clever, well-paced and brash: a mix almost impossible to tear oneself away from. The cast created a highly visual, nocturnal portrait of dark hearts in even darker dramas of late 19th century London. Co-commissioned by the Center for Contemporary Opera, the San Antonio Opera (where it will premiere), and North Carolina's Long Leaf Opera, it's an opera that unapologetically dares to speak about the depths of desperation and corruption in the human soul.
The CCO's season continues with highlights such as an Atelier performance of Anaïs (music & libretto by Susan Hurley); Neither (music by Morton Feldman and libretto by Samuel Beckett) in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Samuel Beckett's death, and also the CCO's international stage debut in Vienna at the Konzerthuas; and the world premiere of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, with music & libretto by John Eaton in June at Symphony Space -- based on the tale of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but sadly, not starring Brad Pitt in his homuncular incarnation.
Opera Chic, necessarily unsentimental living between Milan and NYC, is sacrificially keeping the gorgeous, simple (frame-able) playbill, evocative of the appealingly-clean graphic art we've seen from the likes of Chris Ware.