"Slaying the Dragon" sings out a powerful story

Andrew Kurtz of Center City Opera Theater.
Andrew Kurtz of Center City Opera Theater.
Posted: June 05, 2012

Dragons are no strangers to the opera stage, but perhaps the grandest and scariest of all arrives at Prince Music Theater in the Thursday premiere of Slaying the Dragon. No myth, this dragon is a Ku Klux Klan leader in a stage portrayal of the racist vigilante organization.

That’s something to sing about? Oh, yes. "That’s what makes contemporary opera a powerful medium for storytelling," said Center City Opera Theater general and artistic director Andrew Kurtz. "There’s nothing more intense than a human voice singing in the way that an opera singer can."

Especially with R-rated language. The Klan leader has buildings bombed and makes creepy, threatening phone calls that stop just short of murder threats to nonwhites — Asians included. A third-generation Chinese American, composer Michael Ching, has firsthand experience with that. "I remember going into a bar in Memphis and hearing one guy say, ‘You boat people should get the f— out of here,’?" Ching said. "Those kinds of things happen."

Through the Philadelphia Anti-Defamation League, librettist Ellen Frankel contacted and interviewed an ex-skinhead who grew up in Kensington and had belonged to a racist group known as the Order. "He didn’t come from a family that was full of racist rhetoric and abuse. He came from an ordinary family, and turned to hatred because he was bullied in high school," she said. "It’s more horrifying to find evil in these ordinary people."

What makes the harassment scenes in Slaying the Dragon particularly chilling is the complete lack of conscience behind them. Or so it seems. Based on the Kathryn Watterson book Not by the Sword, the opera tells of a real-life grand master of the Nebraska Klan who was abandoned by his followers when his health began to deteriorate. Ultimately, he not only made friends with the people he once threatened but converted to Judaism.

The full arc of that conversion strained credibility, even for opera. During the extensive Slaying the Dragon workshops that preceded the production, characters shifted toward skepticism — was the Klansman faking? — as well as a sense of counterpoint that even when a leader decamps, the hate groups carry on.

Stock opera villains no longer work. "We’ve grown used to moral ambiguity and to be suspicious of things that are tied up in a bow," Frankel said. "It’s important for people to leave the theater not sure how characters made up their own minds."

However Slaying the Dragon is received, the opera will make a statement in front of the Opera America conference to be held here June 13 to 16. Philadelphia was once considered an outpost of old-school opera, but its major opera organizations have been branching out, in varying degrees, toward new work.

In recent seasons, Curtis Opera Theatre produced Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar, the Academy of Vocal Arts premiered The Scarlet Letter by Margaret Garwood, and the Opera Company of Philadelphia opens the new Nico Muhly opera Dark Sisters on Friday as one focal point for the Opera America conference.

Now 13 years old, Center City Opera has operated more quietly. Though it has had high-profile productions of works such as Lowell Liebermann’s Picture of Dorian Gray at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater, the more important work has perhaps been more off the grid, holding workshop operas, often in small venues, sometimes as part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.

The company’s agreement with the Prince Music Theater, now in its first season, has allowed more opera for less money. Its production of Dorian Gray at the Kimmel Center was twice as much as Slaying the Dragon, whose performances are divided between Prince Music Theater and Academy of Vocal Arts. The company’s current budget is $350,000 — minuscule by many big-company standards.

"I’ve learned to produce opera with great economy, and part of it is the negotiation process with the artists," Kurtz said. "It’s like A-list actors doing indie movies. They’ll do a project if they’re interested."

Iowa-based Ching was artistic director of Opera Memphis from 1992 to 2010 but now composes full-time. Frankel was the longtime editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society and became enamored of opera only within the last five years. She’s also collaborating with composer Andrea Clearfield on an opera titled The Golem — one of 12 projects being developed by Center City Opera.

They won’t all pan out, Kurtz said, although next season also includes established works such as Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers and a chamber-opera version of Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men. It’s about thinking big without being grand. Says Kurtz, "We don’t need to have 45 characters, as in the past."

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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