10:07 PM, February 12, 2012
No tenors, no arias, no orchestra pit, no plot. Can “You, My Mother”really be called an opera?
Yes, it can! Despite the lack of traditional trappings, this new work by downtown troupe Two-Headed Calf does exactly what opera is supposed to do, brilliantly melding music and text to deliver an emotional wallop.
The 80-minute show is a double bill focusing on relationships between mothers and their adult children. Four singer-actors are accompanied by percussion ensemble Yarn/Wire, which supplements its drums, xylophones and keyboards with what looks like the entire inventory of a hardware store.
The first part, written by Kristen Kosmas, examines a family’s failures of communication.
The mother (Beth Griffith) has suffered a stroke, leaving her speech garbled. Composer Rick Burkhardt sets her lines as unintelligible yelps and random syllables extended into long moans. Beside her is another woman (Kate Soper), who echoes the mother’s words undistorted: what she’s thinking rather than what she’s capable of forming into words.
Ironically, her children remember her as a woman who wouldn’t listen, so when we see them in flashbacks, their speech is distorted as well.
After a tearful confession from the daughter (Laryssa Husiak), the mother shrugs. “I can’t hear you,” she says. “It must be the acoustics or something.”
The onstage band ratcheted up the tension with sudden creaks and snaps and pings, plucking the strings of a piano and scraping violin bows across tin cans.
A comic interlude had Griffith doing a spectacular vocal turn as an exotic jungle bird, squealing far above soprano range, then growling like something out of “The Exorcist.” As a projected subtitle helpfully translated it, “I’m so proud of my children.”
The piece closed with violinist Joshua Modney, who scraped and battered the strings as he stammered a eulogy for “complicated” mothers everywhere: “On the one hand, you wore blue eye shadow and short shorts ... on the other hand, you were a human-rights activist.”
After this emotional workout, the second work offered a welcome dash of sweetness. For a montage of sentimental stories about mothers, composer Brendan Connelly conjured shimmering gamelan-like chords and bittersweet vocal melodies that could have come from an early Sondheim musical.
The heart-tugging high point of Karinne Keithley Syers’ libretto was a monologue about family road trips, which Mike Mikos delivered with a radiant smile.
Director Brooke O’Harra made clever use of the black box space, piloting the performers through a maze of percussion equipment with deft precision.
“Aida” it’s not, but “You, My Mother” is worth the trip downtown. And would it kill you to take your own mother along?