The musical performance generally considered to represent the first true opera in the history of theatrical arts, Dafne, was composed in Italy in 1597. Humankind received the rutabaga shortly thereafter, with its first written botanical record appearing in 1620. But, unlikely as it may seem, in the nearly 400 years that have followed, the two have never appeared together on the world stage.
Until this week, when the rutabaga (spoiler alert) emerges as the primo uomo of A Brief History of Root Vegetables, the world premiere, full-length, three-act opera from Professor David Heuser of the University of Texas at San Antonio.
On Friday the campy comedy will lay claim to being the first major original operatic production ever commissioned and composed in San Antonio, and only the second full-length opera to stage its world premiere here. (Heuser previously premiered a small one-act chamber opera, The Golden Ax, in San Antonio in 2008 at the Cactus Pear Music Festival, and in 2005, UTSA Lyric Theatre Director William McCrary directed the debut of Seymour Barab’s Gods of Mischief.)
A Brief History of Root Vegetables is part of Contemporary Art Month, and for those who think “contemporary opera” is an oxymoron, this work marks a milestone in a local operatic renaissance — or maybe just a naissance. Texas has one of the lowest proportions of opera-goers among any state in the U.S., according to the National Endowment of the Arts, but no one can say the Alamo City isn’t doing its part to change that. The itinerant San Antonio Opera, which has never commissioned an original opera in its 14 years, will finally have a home when the Bexar County Performing Arts Center opens in 2013, getting a real shot at plying American opera along with other major U.S. cities.
Heuser’s effort, while serious in scale, develops as a sort of postmodern opera buffa, a whirling ensemble slapstick backed by a lively 14-piece orchestra. “The opera is a 21st-century farce; think Gianni Schicchi crossed with Monty Python, combined with Arrested Development, sprinkled with the Marx Brothers, and topped off with the frenetic storytelling style of authors such as David Eggers,” its playbill proclaims. That’s a tall order to fill, but the all-student cast sure gives it the old college try.
The large, almost overcrowded ensemble format serves to showcase the UTSA Lyric Theatre program’s depth of talent: No less than seven baritones, six mezzo-sopranos, one soprano, and two tenors belt it out during the performance. Also in-house, Lyric Theatre’s McCrary directs the work and Professor Eugene Dowdy conducts the UTSA orchestra.
Heuser says he wanted to weave a narrative both lighthearted and relevant. “I was reacting to the large American operas commissioned since the 1980s, the conventional tragedies, usually literary-based, such as A Streetcar Named Desire `1995`, Harvey Milk `1995`, The Great Gatsby `1999`, and Doctor Atomic `2005`.” But, Heuser says, he also strove to embrace the form of 19th-century opera, describing his composition style as conservative. “This is not an ‘anti-opera.’”
The story centers on the dysfunctional Smyth-Maggóts family, which has come together for the funeral of the family’s matriarch. Half a dozen principals scheme independently to locate a precious gem they believe she hid in the house, all the while maneuvering to conceal the gem’s existence from everyone else. The many characters frequently interrupt one another or hold several simultaneous onstage dialogues. The plot in turn becomes entangled in internecine family intrigue and other sidelines — including a succession struggle for the Smyth-Maggóts’ energy-bar empire — maintaining a quickly paced and witty, if at times baffling, hilarity.
While Heuser embraces traditional form, he also pushes the envelope beyond what he terms traditional opera’s “stodgy limits.” From the very beginning, a self-important narrator perches behind a podium front stage right and confidently reels off asides that aren’t: The cast hears his commentary and engages in argumentative banter with him. At times he’s a voice; at others he’s a prop; and at some points a participatory character in a story that constantly works, a bit self-consciously, to challenge the boundaries between the narrative, the stage, and the spectators.
Sometimes Root Vegetables taps into gimmicky devices. The stagehands also deliver recitative (both are baritones); a puppet show is employed to provide the public with background plot; half of the synopses distributed accurately describe the storyline, while the other half are plainly bogus. If attendees receive a farcical version, or even if they do not, they can still rely on the supertitles for guidance: They will be in English, even though the libretto is already in English.
Like 21st-century life, A Brief History of Root Vegetables suffers constant interruptions, absurd deviations, “an overstuffed story,” and a major self-reflexive moment in which the entire cast quits the show and a chorus of lawyers streams onstage to sing about the joys of billable hours. “Ultimately,” says Heuser, “it’s just about giggles and laughs.”
San Antonio Opera founder and director Mark Richter lauds the blossoming of homegrown opera, but remains skeptical of “experimental” forms. “San Antonio is definitely more of a traditional town in terms of opera. The public responds better to the top 20 operas, to Grand Opera. We do some experimental stuff with local schools, but for the mainstream audience, they want their meat and potatoes.”
Potatoes are technically tubers, not roots — not even tuberous roots for that matter — so it might be hard to see how A Brief History of Root Vegetables will satiate a nascent public hunger for opera in San Antonio. But having viewed a rehearsal, the Current can say the opera is fast and entertaining throughout the roughly 90-minute performance. You definitely will laugh if you see this opera. High-minded grand-opera aficionados might find themselves distastefully dissecting it afterward — but, like a fat and squishy yam or long, starchy cassava, at least the work is dense enough to satisfyingly sink a fork into. •