COT’s offbeat “Taking Up Serpents” gives notice of a talented new composer

March 02, 2021
Michael Mayes as Daddy and Leah Dexter as Nelda in the church scene from Kamala Sankaram’s Taking up Serpents, presented by Chicago Opera Theater. Photo: Sean Su

Chicago Opera Theater continued its online season Saturday night with the Chicago premiere of Taking up Serpents.  

This new opera was premiered in 2019 at the Kennedy Center as part of Washington National Opera’s admirable American Opera Initiative. COT’s streamed production—available through Tuesday—marks the unveiling of an expanded version of the opera by composer Kamala Sankaram and librettist Jerre Dye, which runs 20 minutes longer than at the DC premiere.

The opera tells of Kayla, a young girl working at the local Save Mart drugstore in Gulf Shores, Alabama. On her break from the night shift, she has a sense of disquiet as she reminisces about her strange childhood and her father, who went from a drunken, dissolute blasphemer to a Pentecostal minster who handles serpents in his charismatic church services.

Her equally religious mother Nelda calls Kayla to tell her that Daddy was bitten by a snake at the service and is dying, imploring her to come home. After a bus ride home, Kayla finds her father comatose at the hospital. Nelda confronts Kayla over her decision to leave home; mother and daughter have an angry confrontation and both eventually reach separate personal epiphanies.

Taking Up Serpents was largely well received at its DC premiere and it’s easy to see why. The offbeat story is undeniably compelling in its brief one-act span. This expanded version seems to add greater breadth to the 60-minute original and shows Daddy in his element at the church service. 

Yet that doesn’t fix the crucial problem of the opera’s finale. [SPOILER ALERT] Following her argument with Kayla, Nelda puts a pillow over Daddy’s face and smothers him to death—a jarring act that comes out of left field and seems wholly out of character for the religious Nelda. (It’s also unnecessary since Daddy is on the way out anyway.) The final scene is weak as well: Kayla seems to imagine herself as a preacher in a church and what is supposed to be a moment of moving feminine transcendence merely comes across as daytime TV self-actualization (“I am whole”).

So, while Taking Up Serpents is ultimately an uneven work, it does serve notice of two impressive new talents in composer Sankaram and librettist Dye.

Sankaram’s music is consistently well crafted, versatile and effective. Kayla’s nostalgic opening aria of melancholy (“I thought somehow leaving home would give me wings.”) has some of the same rustic simplicity of the title character’s arias in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. There are moments of soaring lyricism elsewhere that are equally engaging.

Sankaram also contributes rollicking uptempo gospel music for the new church scene, which sounds credibly like the real thing. Yet her music is written with economy and precision, and the lucid crystalline scoring always illuminates the words and stage action. One looks forward to hearing future efforts by this gifted composer. 

Apart from the problematic finale, Dye’s libretto is nearly as strong. There is a rough poetry and eloquence in his words (“God gets in the cracks of things” and “If you ain’t got some tough in you, God will break you in two”). Also, the Chicago-based librettist grew up in a Pentecostal milieu and the narrative—unlike most of what experiences in the media and popular culture—doesn’t caricature these poor Southern believers (even if religion is seen as something ultimately one has to get over). Dye also served fluently as stage director.

Alexandra Loutsion is Kayla in COT’s Taking up Serpents. Photo: Sean Su

A strong cast gave this Midwestern premiere a worthy sendoff.

Making her COT debut Alexandra Loutsion is possessed of a big gleaming voice, flexible throughout its range and able to tackle the opera’s climatic high notes with no evident strain. Dramatically, Loutsion’s acting was capable if somewhat generalized, though she brought fiery commitment to the story’s emotional peaks.

Michael Mayes (also a company debut) proved such a forceful, overwhelming presence as Daddy that one waited in vain for the character to revive from his coma in the hospital bed. Singing in a robust, aptly hoary baritone, Mayes brought outsized energy and strutting, spiritual fervor to Daddy’s church preaching. (The singer’s grandfather was a Baptist preacher in his native Texas, which may account for Mayes’ idiomatic church style). The baritone was scarily dangerous in a violent childhood flashback with Kayla and Mayes brought comparable intensity to Daddy’s instantaneous conversion from sacrilegious sinner to true believer.  

As Nelda, Leah Dexter provided dramatic dedication and a fine mezzo-soprano voice in the role of Kayla’s mother. The upward Southern “yip” in Sankaram’s music for Nelda’s gospel aria bears some resemblance to the Crab Man’s music in Porgy and Bess.

Company stalwart Annie Rosen—Loutsion’s real-life partner—contributed a cameo as Kayla’s skeptical coworker Reba, though one couldn’t help feeling she was miscast in this role. Morgan Middleton, Justin Berkowitz, and Rachel Blaustein showed versatility as a kind of intermittent Greek chorus, the latter two in double roles. Young actor Emma Claire Stace displayed poise in the brief silent flashbacks as young Kayla.

COT’s rehearsals must have gone quite well since this immaculate performance—filmed in the company’s home at the Studebaker Theater—was done in a single unbroken take with multiple cameras. 

The filming was helmed by Jan Thompson and colleagues at Valhalla Media, and rendered with skill and imagination. While still a recorded stage performance, the camera was always where it needed to be with the singers, the separated (or separately filmed) trio was smoothly integrated, and fades and brief but artful montages (including with a live snake) avoided visual monotony.

Music director Lidiya Yankovskaya conducted the 13-player chamber orchestra with characteristic skill—sure pacing, keen dramatic focus and mostly deft balancing (high percussion fitfully intruded at times). 

Taking Up Serpents will be streamed through March 2.

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