Despite its flaws, Seattle Opera’s “Amelia” makes a high-flying impact
It takes a village to create a new opera: years of planning, imagining, writing, scoring, drawing, fundraising, probing, rehearsing and collaborating. And the ardent hope of any opera company that goes through this process – not to mention the audiences who buy tickets – is that all this enormous effort is not expended in vain.
Some eight years after Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins decided to commission a new opera that has now become the company’s Amelia, the high hopes and expectations have been answered in a production of considerable impact and beauty.
It’s not a flawless work; there are some odd incongruities, lines that don’t work, scenes that drag a bit, and a push toward a kind of self-conscious overdrawn lyricism about flying and risking that’s sometimes uncomfortable to hear and watch.
But this also is an important piece, one that can bring you to the edge of your seat and also make you reach for a Kleenex, and one that has the whole-hearted commitment of a first-rate team of performers.
Daron Aric Hagen’s score, brought to life by conductor Gerard Schwarz and a stellar cast with no weak link, is both complex and affecting, weaving into a tonal base a wide variety of colors and ideas that are all the more remarkable for their reportedly last-minute augmentation (it was discovered during rehearsals that more music was needed for instrumental interludes during scene changes). The interlude before the final scene, full of exciting and intricate percussion, is particularly effective; the orchestra, given full rein, responds with great strength and flexibility.
The poetic libretto is by Gardner McFall, whose own life experience – losing a pilot father during the Vietnam War – is echoed in the plot of Amelia. In many ways, the opera is McFall’s own life story: the father in the opera bears the same name as her own father (Dodge), and wears the same uniform (right down to the details of emblems and patches); even his final letter to his family is quoted in the opera’s libretto. The opera’s story line was shaped by Stephen Wadsworth, who also is the production’s able and imaginative stage director.
In some ways, this is a very tidy show: two hour-long acts, each divided into three scenes and mostly staged in rectilinear boxes that make adroit use of screens. And in some ways, especially for the literal-minded, it’s anything but tidy: the action hops from the mid-1960s (when Dodge is about to leave his wife and young daughter for another tour of duty in Vietnam) to the mid-90s (when the daughter, Amelia, is in her late 30s and heavily pregnant with her own daughter). Then there’s a brief diversion backward a decade to the 1980s, when Amelia and her mother journey to Vietnam after receiving a letter from a North Vietnamese couple who have information about Dodge before leaping back to the 90s.
The leapfrogging time periods are complicated further by the presence of people who inhabit the same scene but are unaware of each other: Dodge is putting young Amelia to bed in one side of the house while on the other side, a black car arrives to herald the news that Dodge is missing in action. And the mythical characters of Daedalus and Icarus are building Icarus’ wings out of wax and feathers in the bedroom shared by the grown-up, pregnant Amelia and her husband Paul.
Oddest of all is the recurrent figure of the historical Amelia Earhart (who is called “The Flier” in this production), landing her impressive Lockheed Electra plane on the roof of the hospital where adult Amelia is giving birth. The Flier descends into the waiting room, where she swaggers about declaiming, “I was never bored.” Neither, to be sure, is the opera’s audience.
Besides Earhart’s Electra, there’s plenty to look at: Thomas Lynch’s sets include a gorgeous, painterly landscape for the Vietnam scene, which – after the slow-moving and ruminative opening scenes — gives the opera a jolt of dramatic and musical energy. The skies, with dramatic sunset colors and velvety, starry canopies, are particularly lovely.
More significantly, there’s plenty to hear. It would be impossible to improve on the passionate performance of Kate Lindsey in the title role, a beautiful singing actress who breathes life into this role. William Burden is a marvelously empathetic Dodge, singing with remarkable finesse. Nathan Gunn’s Paul is deeply moving, particularly in the scene where he reads the letter that Dodge left behind for the family.
Jennifer Zetlan is a fearless Flier, and Ashley Emerson is wholly, startlingly believable as the young Amelia. As Amelia’s Aunt Helen, Wagnerian soprano Jane Eaglen does compelling work in a small role: a Ferrari brought in to do the job of a Ford.
Amelia runs through May 22 at Seattle Opera. www.seattleopera.org.
Melinda Bargreen is a writer and composer who was classical music critic of The Seattle Times from 1977 to 2008. She now freelances for a variety of national and international media; her choral works have been performed nationwide. Her website is www.melindabargreen.com.