"Slaying the Dragon" intmidated by its own message

Posted: June 09, 2012

If the road to great opera were paved with great intentions, Slaying the Dragon, the new work premiered on Thursday by Center City Opera Theater at the Prince Music Theater, would be home free. But it's not.

Even with a powerful villain who may be unique in the annals of opera — a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan — Slaying the Dragon seems intimidated by its own anti-hate message. The libretto often speaks in platitudes. The music tends to keep a respectful distance, almost like a demure film score. With its message drawn in such broad strokes and in a single dimension, one's reactions even come out in clichés, such as "Tell me something I don't know."

And for a few flashes in the first act, it does.

Based on the Kathryn Watterson book Not by the Sword, the opera is about a small community with an increasingly diverse population, and a local KKK chapter that's bent on harrassing and bombing them out of the city limits. But after the opera's main character, Jerry Krieg, is made grand dragon in a grandiose induction ceremony, the Klan hoods come off and cell phones come out; some of them are soccer moms arranging transportation for their kids — a nice touch suggesting the group's frightening normality. And when Jerry starts making threatening phone calls to the minorities, you know he's going to be the ruthless standard bearer.

It's here that the opera starts to kick in. Composer Michael Ching has a keen ear for knowing what words need to be spoken rather rather than sung, and accompanies the vocalizations with quietly woozy bass lines. At other points, deftly used microtones create unresolvable dissonance, the musical counterpart to a pit in one's stomach. Librettist Ellen Frankel supplies appropriately unflinching nastiness. Not until the end of the act does the opera to spring back to life, when the increasingly crippled Jerry seems out to take back his power by shooting the local rabbi.

Still, the opera hasn't much argument. The grand dragon's bad childhood is one of the few hints that tells why people are attracted to hate groups. There's no sense of what makes them stay. Act II has Krieg making a hasty departure from the KKK, perhaps because he is no longer wanted anyway. But opera is exactly the sort of medium that could convincingly convey a conversion. Instead, Jerry is waving a shotgun one minute and weeping in remorse the next.

The opera's freshest moments emerge in subsidiary characters. Is there anything new to say about The Holocaust? The answer is, indeed, yes when the opera's Holocaust survivor is finished with her great scene, in which she upbraids the Klansman for claiming the Holocaust didn't happen. In fact, this may be the opera's peak —and reveals thelack of authenticity elsewhere. Also excellent is the rabbi's Act II sermon that, at least on the surface, is about peace and love and brotherhood, but in its fusion of music and words, comes out much deeper. Also effective is the final scene, where the Klansman's redemption is juxtaposed against the induction of a new grand dragon.

Opening night performances don't always make a great case for the piece itself. And tentativeness of the first act was underscored by staging so static that you might've been looking at an oratorio with costumes. That's not like director Leland Kimball, whose Opera Delaware work was consistently stageworthy. Conductor Andrew Kurtz' had his usual metrical clarity, but the orchestra was not so sturdy.

The singers were a different story. Having learned the piece over several workshops during the last six months, the cast knew what it was about, vocally speaking, especially Jody Kidwell as the Holocaust survivor. As the rabbi with a shady past, Nathan Goodman was an appropriately formidable presence, and Paul Corujo as a bigoted talk show host was suitably slimy.

However, the opera might not have worked on any level without a great dragon, and it's hard to imagine anyone better than Christopher Lorge. His bright, penetrating voice (think Richard Cassilly) was ideal for the character's more aggressive moments. He also managed a maniacal cackle that never sounded gothic, but suggested a person with ice water running through his veins. With the character's spiritual conversion came a vocal conversion into a voice with lyric sweetness. He also looked the part of somebody who probably has beer for breakfast. If there's one unequivocal reason to see Slaying theDragon, he's it.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com Repeat performances are June 9 at the Prince Music Theater and June 14, 16 and 17 at the Helen Corning Warden Theater at Academy of Vocal Arts. Information: 215-238-1555 or www.operatheater.org.

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