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Thursday, December 21, 2006
The Other Wise Man

Contemporary American chamber opera, professional wrestling, beauty, and power meet in my review of The Other Wise Man. (The production itself has all but one of these. Guess which.)

You don't necessarily have to love opera as such to enjoy some operas. One can enjoy a Puccini opera simply by waiting patiently between the frequent moments of surpassing musical beauty. Likewise, a Mozart opera moves from one episode of breathtaking virtuosity to another. One might even love an excellent production of Verdi's Aida principally for the stunning sets and costumes (sometimes also for live elephants).

But most opera is for opera lovers, and -- rather like professional wrestling, at the other extreme of the cultural spectrum -- it doesn't cross over well. Opera is generally considered classical music, but many a devotee of classical music dislikes opera.

It's not at all certain that I am an opera lover. I have no taste for Wagner, limited patience for Verdi, and so on. Offer me tickets to contemporary American opera, and I may accept them, but I'll be thinking that the phrase "contemporary American opera" includes at least one serious problem word, and possibly as many as three.

So tonight MFCC and I made our way to American Fork Junior High for a performance of American Fork resident M. Ryan Taylor's The Other Wise Man. It is a contemporary American chamber opera. Chamber in musical parlance means a lot fewer musicians than you would otherwise expect to see on stage. In this case, that is six singers and an excellent pianist, supported by a small stage crew, excellent costumes, and a reasonably sparse set.

Taylor composed the music and wrote the libretto -- that's an opera code word for the story or the text -- which is based on a Henry Van Dyke story by the same title. It's in English, unlike every other opera I've attended, I think. Four of the six singers, Janilyn Anderson, Brian Manternach, Lynnette Owens, and Taylor himself, were familiar to me from other recent performances in American Fork. These four, with Gary Sorenson and Venicia Wilson, and accompanied by pianist Cloe Hewett (also of American Fork), comprise a thoroughly professional ensemble.

There's something to be said for witnessing excellence in any worthy endeavor, but tonight's performance was more than a study in excellence. It was a thing of beauty and power.

These are not the orderly harmonies of Handel, the lush sound of Bing Crosby, or the comforting melodies of traditional Christmas hymns. Not every ear will appreciate them. The ear which appreciates them in the end may not have loved them, or even liked them, in the beginning. But . . . did I mention beauty and power?

If you are sporting enough to suspend disbelief on the point of everyone singing instead of talking whenever they have something to say -- a leap you'll have to make if you intend to do anything more than laugh at opera -- it's no great feat to imagine also that there might have been more than the three wise men of partly-Biblical legend. Maybe there was a fourth, who missed the train -- er, caravan -- and arrived at Bethlehem just a little too late to see the Baby. Maybe he then followed the holy family to Egypt, sought them there in vain, and searched 33 more years before finally . . . well, I won't spoil the ending. Suffice it to say that it happens at Jerusalem, and the timing is either very bad indeed or absolutely perfect.

I have not read Henry Van Dyke's story and cannot comment on the adaptation. But in Taylor's opera, at least, the ending that could easily have been maudlin, if overdone or made too sweet, instead is just about right. For my part, I had no difficulty understanding the plot without having read the story first, but it helps to be familiar with Matthew 25 and, for that matter, Isaiah 53.

Three performances remain in this run, two in Salt Lake City (December 22 and 23) and one in Provo (January 6). Further information about the performances, the ensemble, and the work itself is available on the Web at VocalWorks.org. Tickets are $16.00 general admission or $8.00 for students. That may sound like a lot, but it is a bargain price for opera. If that's more than you want to risk on the strength of one blogger's review, you can get a taste of the music from Taylor and Manternach's appearance on Channel 4's morning show (for as long as the link is live).

(Guys, if you don't want word to spread that you went to the opera and enjoyed it, you can pretend you only went to placate your spouse or significant other. Your macho friends will probably believe you, as long as you don't blog about it. But understand, if you go, that there is a real risk: You may want to go back.)

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