Review: A Uneasy Future, Beautifully Executed

Kamratōn and Quince Ensemble premiere a new opera from composer Curtis Rumrill and librettist Zachary Webber



Photograph by Renee Rosensteel.

Continuing Recital’s sponsored partnership with the New Hazlett Theater, we are presenting a series of editorially-independent previews and reviews of the 2018–2019 Community Supported Art (CSA) Performance Series. Below is our review of Her Holiness, The Winter Dog by Kamratōn, a collaborative response from Recital editor David Bernabo, season review panelists Maree ReMalia and Jason Baldinger. Read their bios at the end of the review. And read our preview of the performance here.

By David Bernabo

To close out the 2018–19 New Hazlett CSA season, music ensemble Kamratōn enlists an all-star crew of collaborators to premiere the ambitious opera Her Holiness, The Winter Dog, composed by Curtis Rumrill with a libretto by Zachary Webber. The plot is set in a post-apocalyptic future where nonhuman life is mostly extinct, class war is about to erupt, and dissonant microtonal music is the norm for the wealthy’s house bands. The opera is dense, dark, and severe on many levels but is balanced with frequent humor and an affinity for curiously gross language. With stellar performances and great costuming and set design, the cast admirably executes a work that seems crafted to make the audience feel uneasy.

The opera starts with the funeral for the Autumn Dog. The Autumn Dog is not an actual dog, but a human dressed as a dog that provides spiritual guidance and protection for their employer. The employer in Her Holiness is a trio of sisters that own a once-great, but now crumbling estate. They employ a number of servants — the Dog, two “cats,” a small musical ensemble, and two maids. Vassa, the sister most in charge, drinks through the day while they all cower in fear of the people that live outside the green zone of the wealthy estates, the Strangers.

We are introduced to this world through the words of the officiant — brilliantly played by conductor Daniel Curtis, whose previous acting experience is surprisingly very minimal. Over the rising tones of a microtonal organ — designed by Rumrill for this opera — the officiant provides details of the workings of this world and the sisters’ house. Most importantly, the officiant tells us about the vacuum left by the death of the Autumn Dog — how the house now lacks protection from the Strangers. This vacuum spurs the sisters to hastily hire a new dog, the Winter Dog, performed by Jamie Murphy.

After the Winter Dog arrives, the tone in the house slowly changes. Where the servants were once incentivized into obedience by the sisters’ violent streaks — mainly told through narration instead of visualized on stage — now, they revolt. At first, it is small actions, but later, the servants ransack the estate and venture into the woods to join the Strangers. It is unclear whether the Winter Dog is leading the servants to freedom or using them to further her own agenda. It’s an apt metaphor for current political situations where salvation is promised ahead of each election cycle. It is also unclear how the servants will fare when they meet the Strangers. Will they be struck down? Will they live in harmony? Do the strangers even exist or is their existence a tale created by the sisters to maintain control of their household? In an opera that places so much importance on specificity — from the pantomimed movement of the “cats” down to the microtone — it’s admirable that no easy answers are offered. The best kind of science fiction keeps the viewer cycling through the possibilities suggested by the work.

Vassa (Quince’s Liz Pearse) and The Winter Dog (Jamie Erin Murphy)

Given the dark nature of the opera — the end of nonhuman life, constant fear, the scrambling for control in a chaotic world — the work is frequently humorous. Webber fills the text with a number of dirty words that I hadn’t heard before, but knew exactly what they meant when spoken. Dancers JoAnna Dehler and Emily Jaikaran embody cats in a number of playful duets that tumble and roll. Shana Simmons’ choreography is a grounding force where the characters perform as expected and are not abstractions of their characters. The movement is functional and purposeful, especially when the cats rise to their feet for the first time, indicating their revolt.

One of the funniest things about Her Holiness is the idea that the house band performs intensely dissonant music. Here in the future, where humanity’s selfishness has caused catastrophic damage, the wealthy are subjected to or, perhaps, choose to comfort themselves with asymmetric, non-repetitive atonal music. This decision feels like a composer’s revenge for the population’s rejection of modernist music while praising modernist visual art and film.

That’s not to say that the music is made for humor. Rumrill’s composition is a serious endeavor in texture and, in the world of opera, it feels unique. In trying to find like-minded works, the best we could come up with was some of Muhal Richard Abrams’ symphonic works, a much less angular version of Frank Zappa’s Civilization Phaze III, or John Gavanti, the no wave opera by Mars and DNA.

The music is well played and it’s integration into the story is compelling. Kamratōn’s Anna Elder and the Quince Ensemble handle the vocal duties and are all forces to be reckoned with. The voice drives the story, and the singers skillfully embody their characters while handling the tricky vocal parts. The percussionist, Carlos Camacho, often employing extended techniques and non-traditional percussion instruments, can be seen mixing a drink in rhythm with the ensemble. But often, the instrumental writing serves the plot and the setting so well that it fades into the background, rising and falling as a reactive presence, a mirror to the dramatic tension of the story.

The plot is fascinating and dense and would be a welcomed 300-page sci-fi novel. As such, it is useful if the audience has some context for the piece prior to viewing. The officiant’s context-giving monologues do provide background information to help the audience situate themselves in this bizarre world, and the libretto includes welcomed reduncies where literal action is supported with symbolic actions. For example, the relationship between the two maids, Jonna and Theila, is a smart metaphor for the division in the household. Jonna’s growing frustration with the leadership of the sisters clashes against her partner Theila’s resignation and acceptance of the situation. But the opera can, at times, be hard to follow, especially in the epilogue where time and place seem to veer away from the linear path that the opera follows up until that point. Also, on a more technical level, the high placement of the displayed text sometimes draws the viewer’s eye away from the action on stage causing the audience to choose between reading the words or watching the stage actions.

Her Holiness, The Winter Dog arrives at a time that some would already consider a version of the apocalypse. Within weeks of the opera’s premiere, Breakthrough — National Centre for Climate Restoration released a report predicting the end of human civilization as we know it by 2050. (People Magazine even wrote about it.) There would still be human life, but it would be greatly diminished and constantly at risk. Her Holiness, The Winter Dog uses its alternative world to bring the audience closer to the risks that threaten or have already destroyed aspects of our current world — class inequality and environmental destruction are the most explicit links. While Rumrill has previously separated his political activism from his creative work, Her Holiness seems like a merging of the two interests. Thankfully, the opera leaves the fate of the characters open to interpretation, allowing the implications of this world to linger with the audience long after viewing.

Panelist Bios:

Jason Baldinger is a poet from Pittsburgh. He’s the author of several books the most recent of which, the chaplet, Fumbles Revelations (Grackle and Crow) is available now, and the collection Fragments of a Rainy Season (Six Gallery Press) which is coming soon. You can hear Jason read his poems at as well as on a recently released cassette by the band Theremonster.

David Bernabo is a filmmaker, musician, dancer, visual artist, and writer, performing with the bands Host Skull and How Things Are Made; devising dances with his variable dance company, MODULES; and often collaborating with Maree ReMalia | merrygogo. He curates and produces work for the Ongoing Box imprint and co-curates the Lightlab Performance Series with slowdanger.

Maree ReMalia is a choreographer, performer, and teacher. Born in South Korea, and raised in the Midwest, her work celebrates diversity by opening possibilities for who dancers are, what they look like, how they move, and how they train. merrygogo is her platform for creating project-based performance works with communities of shifting collaborators. Through her choreography and teaching, she draws from improvisational methods across disciplines and the Gaga movement language to build community and make space for people to make new discoveries in playful and inquisitive ways.