Victoria Vargas, Mark Campbell and Marisa Michelson
December 1st has been recognized as World AIDS Day since 1988. A day set aside to raise awareness of the HIV virus and AIDS. This year I attended Arbeit Opera Theatre (AOT) and Loftrecital’s World AIDS Day Program at Lush in NE Minneapolis. The World AIDS Day Program consisted of two sections. First were two monologues from from Angels in America by Tony Kushner with music by Ricky Ian Gordon presented as opera. The second part was the Midwest premiere of The Other Room, a 30 minute opera with music by Marisa Michelson and libretto by Mark Campbell. In between the two pieces, following a short video that shared some stories of those who have been helped by Clare Housing, Chuck Peterson, Executive Director of Clare Housing spoke. Clare Housing is an organization that provides affordable and supportive housing for people living with HIV. The evening was rounded out by a Talk Back moderated by Kelly Turpin the Artistic Director and Founder of AOT and featuring the Librettist Mark Campbell, The Director of The Other Room David Radames Toro, and representatives from Clare Housing and Justus Health. Justus Health is an organization devoted to achieving health equity for diverse gender, sexual, and cultural communities. AOT and Loftrecital’s community Partner along with Clare Housing and Justus Health was RECLAIM which provides therapy services for queer and trans youth. I love RECLAIM and was tickled to see they were a partner as my son receives services there, and loves them.
I have not seen Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, I know I know, I am ashamed of myself. I have even owned the DVD of Mike Nichols’ HBO adaptation for 10+ years, so there really is no excuse. I also have very little exposure to Opera. It’s hard to comment on the Monologues themselves without fully understanding how they fit into the larger work. I can tell you that Bergen Baker the Soprano that sung the role of Harper has an exquisite voice. Unlike the second piece, these monologues were not accompanied by the Libretto projected above the performer. In this case I could have used them. Thankfully, Baker besides being an accomplished singer is also a gifted actor. What was missed in terms of “dialogue” was conveyed to the audience through her precise and moving facial expressions and body language. This is, as Linton expressed at one point, “opera on a budget”. The staging by Director Christine Weber, while simple, A few chairs a bedsheet and some projection on the background screen was all that was needed to convey place and mood.
The Other Room was a complete work, not an excerpt and as such, it is the more fully formed of the pieces. It tells the story of Lena whom it is revealed is trying to paint a picture of a tree while her friend Steve who is dying of AIDS, is attempting suicide in the next room. As she tries to get the painting right she is reminiscing about their time together, from their first day to the moment he asked for her help on this day. Victoria Vargas is well cast in the role of Lena, her voice is clear and easily understood, this segment had the Libretto projected above the performer, but it was never needed. I understood at every moment what Vargas was singing. As with Baker, Vargas is not only a singer but also a good actress. I understood from the beginning that Lena’s frustration with not being able to achieve the correct green for her painting, was about more than the color of paint. We understand that there is something else putting Lena ill at ease long before it is revealed that Steve is in the next room dying or that if he is unsuccessful that she has promised to assist. I learned afterward that the opera is based on a real event. The role of Lena was based on a man named Edgardo. Campbell decided to switch the gender of the character as he felt Lesbians do not receive enough credit for the role they had played in the gay community during the period when the play takes place. Both Angels in America and The Other Room are accompanied beautifully on the piano by James P. Barnett. The Other Room also features Rebeccah Parker Downs on the cello. The cello seems to be the perfect instrument for capturing the moods of the soul. Even without the performance by Vargas The music alone is beautiful enough to enchant the audience.
In the Talk Back after the performances Chuck Peterson repeated something he had heard earlier that day at another World AIDS Day event, “HIV is the virus, stigma is the disease.” This is a great reminder of what World AIDS day is for, it’s to raise awareness, to remind us of the the 37 million people living on the planet who are HIV positive. These stories are important to share. It is through telling the stories of those living with HIV and those that have been lost to AIDS that we create empathy in others. Empathy is the beginning of understanding, with understanding comes the desire to help create positive change. While these short works increased my exposure to opera, I still have a lot to learn about this art form. What is exciting about AOT is that there mission is to produce socially-relevant works, in order to break down the barriers of the classical art form. I like what Mark Campbell said during the talk back, that AOT is “Fucking up Opera”, in a good way. He meant that they are making Opera relevant and accessible and fresh, they are doing new things not simply restaging the classics for the hundredth time. He sees this as the future of Opera. I encourage you to read more about AOT and watch for future productions, I know I will. You can find out about them at https://www.arbeitoperatheatre.com/about . Also please check out their Community Partners at their websites below. Learn what you can do to lend support and get involved, being an Ally means taking action.
Clare Housing at https://www.clarehousing.org/
Justus Health at https://www.justushealth.org/
RECLAIM at https://www.reclaim.care/