Thompson Street Opera Company may not possess a Chicago birthright, but since its arrival in 2016, Thompson has become a contender in the city’s burgeoning storefront opera scene. Companies such as Chicago Fringe, New Moon, Floating, Petite, Main Street Opera, Transgressive Theatre-Opera and Third Eye Ensemble have sprung up in the city, creating newly examined productions of opera from the standard repertory, and works in English by contemporary composers, mounted in unusual, or found venues. Thompson Street’s mission stipulates professional quality performances of works by living composers. With little money and buckets of sweat, Chicago’s unused storefronts, black boxes, pubs, and re-appropriated hallways have once again become the go-to place for a fresh, in-your-face approach to artistic investigation, this time to re-invigorate the operatic arts; the ghosts of the theatre scene that put Chicago’s staged storytelling on the map must be watching, happily hungry for another round.
Born in a studio apartment in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and in residence for summer festival programming in Louisville, Kentucky from 2013-2-16, Thompson Street hit the ground of The Windy City singing, premiering with “Crocodiles, Copper Cups, and Cream Puffs,” Children’s Stories in Song, at Stage 773. The two-part family-friendly event, made up of an operatic retelling of the Malaysian folk tale, “The Mouse Deer and the Crocodile” by Hong-Da Chin and Yvonne Freckmann's “The Rootabaga Stories,” gathered from Carl Sandburg, brought some of the city’s finest young singers into an intimate space rarely used for operatic productions, and with funny faces, puppets, and high notes, Thompson gave the city’s children a unique, connective journey.
In January 2017, Thompson Street, with a mission that stipulates professional quality performances of works by living composers, delighted an audience of both operatic enthusiasts and their excited and/or obliging disciples with the Chicago premiere of Philip Thompson’s, The Final Battle for Love, staged in the intimate black box space at Raven Theatre in the historic Edgewater/Uptown neighborhood, home to Chicago’s Green Mill, (believed to be the oldest, continuous run jazz club in the country), the Uptown Underground, (promising the best in cabaret, burlesque, magic and variety entertainers), and the fabled Aragon Ballroom. Just the right place, and not a minute too soon.
"Final Battle is basically everything I love about opera, turned up to 11, and compacted into 40 minutes: catchy tunes, intense pathos, crazy humor, and heartbreaking realism,” say Thompson Street’s Executive Director Claire DiVizio. “The way that Philip plays with extremes of style, character, and content, slaps you in the face with both the joyousness and excruciation of being human. The genius way that he shoves deep sadness right up against hysterical laughter does the almost impossible task of making the audience feel both emotions at once, which is what life is, isn't it?”
Thompson Street Opera Company's Claire DiVizio
Philip Thompson’s (no relation) opera is certainly no children’s story, although it begins with an Our Town resonance, a sole narrator onstage, drawing in the audience while slipping in the exposition, the crowd none the wiser. Drawn from Tony Earley’s short story, Charlotte, Final Battle begins in that southern city in present day, conjuring up a conurbation that was once the home to many wrestlers and the staging of their skirmishes. Flashing back and forth between the narrator’s “now,” as he works to bring a more spiritually-examined equilibrium to his erogenous relationship with his girlfriend Starla, who believe that love is about sexual attraction and nothing else, and the apparitions of home-town, prime-time wrestling, the story careens toward its apex, a championship fight between Lord Poetry and Bob Noxious for the love, cerebral and corporeal, of Darling Donnis. The invisible, fully-realized characters of Love and Lust loom large in both stories, and the city of Charlotte itself is a central character in the opera, celebrated and mourned by The Narrator.
Thompson’s score sidles up to country music idioms, ventures into folk stylings, jazz, and surprises with the reoccurring rhythms paired with musical hooks that midwifed rock ‘n roll and helped disco to die so slowly, but never forgets its operatic mooring, and doesn’t stint on the high notes. And what could be more appropriate to convey the clamor and shrieking of an assembled mob waiting to see what side of a very human question will win the prize?
Composer Philip Thompson
On a Doing The Work with Matthan Black podcast, Thompson, who adapted his own libretto while admittedly borrowing heavily from the ripe language of the short story, explained the genesis of his decision to jump unrestrainedly into a wild mix of musical languages, and the way in which he delineates the story’s present from its past, beginning with hearing the voice of the ringside announcer Big Bill Bosco, riling up the wrestling fans:
“At some point I started hearing the Big Bill Bosco aria…I started to hear that as a parody of, “Thus Saith the Lord,” from The Messiah, because the language was so pseudo-apocalyptic. And once that piece fell into place, I realized that I could handle all the flashbacks by treating them as oratorio, Baroque passions. The everyman narrator is sort of like the evangelist in Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. Once that structure suggested itself to me, along with hearing Big Bill Bosco’s speech as Handel, I decided, I’m gonna go for this. For a mash-up of all these styles. So you have Handelian fugue, you have rock, you have Darling Donnis’ mad scene – basically a mash up of Queen of the Night and Vivaldi, and (Pink Floyd’s) Great Gig in the Sky.”
(Find the entire interview at http://doingtheworkpod.com/?p=441.)
Sounds a little crazy, yes? Not at all. The harpsicord and the trap set quickly made perfect sense. I could hear the bass guitar that would have rumbled with a more fulsome accompaniment when musical director Cody Michael Bradley started punishing the lower reaches of the keyboard. I was able to revel in the absurdity of a memory’s wrestling match between a jock and a geek over a pretty girl who couldn’t keep her head, and then slam dunk into an impassioned “now,” where a battle raged for what at face value seemed very different. It worked because my subconscious caught on before my outside eyes to the themes that are as warming as they are sharp, and what seemed to be competing stories became one, colorful cataclysmic collision of fumbling desire and keen awareness. What could be more appropriate to convey the clamor and shrieking of an assembled mob waiting to see what side of a very human question will win the prize?
Director Kelsea Webb’s cast clearly felt safe in their trust for each other and their celebration of the material. One fearless moment after the next was played in truth, because even moments of absurdity are quickly devalued otherwise. Staging a wrestling match – for there is, indeed, a very real wrestling match in the opera – is no small feat, and to do it in a small, black box theatre as opposed to having the luxury of a thrust stage is a very specific challenge. But the work proved strong and honest enough to allow the audience to have ringside seats themselves, to watch the players and their city duke it out over one of life’s impossible questions. Everyone in everyone’s laps. No distance-filters.
As The Narrator, Matthan Black’s velvety baritone lulled us into what would later become a malignant maelstrom. It is edifying to watch the ascent of this young artist. With each passing year, and in every production, the voice and, since the voice cannot tell a lie, the person becomes richer, with his audiences catching the gold. Black’s performance calendar now includes time with Lyric Opera of Chicago, which surprises no one who has seen his work. Most impressive was the slight shift in timbre Black used to segue from the exposition to the unveiling of his character’s actual presence in the piece. With the tiniest refocusing of his tone, from gold to copper, and adding the slightest southern twinge and a more conversational tone, he led us into the wrestling match before we knew what hit us.
Tenor Matthew Peckham’s Lord Poetry sang for Love, quoting Yeats and Shakespeare in dulcet tone; in gesture, his fingers danced. Thompson gave some of the sweetest music to Lord Poetry, and Peckham wrung the heart out of every couplet. Bass-baritone Jesús Vicente Murillo was perfectly cast as the burly Bob Noxious, fighting on the side of Lust, daringly posing and preening as he reeled Darling Donnis into his orbit. His singing was as testosterone laden as his flexing pectorals. I could almost smell him. As the emcee Big Bill Boscoe, Mark Haddad was at his Handelian best, all bravado and manly coloratura.
Matthan Black Matthew Peckham Jesús Vicente Murillo
Emma Sorenson Katherine Bruton
Emma Sorenson’s Starla was Vivian Leigh as a predatory kitten. Her fluid, lyric mezzo-soprano and the comfort with which she inhabits her body will stand her in good stead as her career trajectory continues to delight. As the vacillating Darling Donnis, Katherine Bruton was as mad as fate insisted, with an endless supply of screamingly pretty high notes.
I was lovely-mangled by the curtain call. I’d laughed. I’d been embarrassed. I was breathless. I gasped. I bopped to the beat, and marveled at the singing. Everyone should see this enigmatic piece, and everyone should see Thompson Street Opera giving it.
Thompson Street's 2017/2018 Season
How will Thompson Street top itself? Their 2017/18 season gives us Eric Lindsay’s Comic Ray and The Amazing Chris in September, and a double bill of Marcus Maroney’s Dust of the Road and Andrey Komanetsky’s Bobok. Let’s see: a trip to Comic Con, tender melodies, aching lyricism, and Dostoevsky.
Once again, Thompson Street has programmed something for everyone!