Earlier this year a film called “Twelve Years a Slave” walked away with the Best Picture award at both the Oscars and the Golden Globes. The true story of a free American man of color who was kidnapped in Washington D.C. and sold into more than a decade of involuntary servitude in the antebellum South shocked well-bred audiences. How could such a thing happen? Well, as I drove through San Francisco’s tough Tenderloin District on my way home from Opera Parallèle’s searing “Anya17,” I looked up at darkened windows and wondered what kind of tragedy was being enacted behind the curtains. How could such a thing happen? It’s happening every day, here and all around the world.
“Anya17,” a new opera by composer Adam Gorb and librettist Ben Kaye, deals with human trafficking, especially the abduction of young girls from underdeveloped, poverty-stricken countries. Lured by the promise of jobs and riches in the West, these women end up as virtual slaves, their bodies a commodity and their lives in ruin. According to the program notes, this is a $32 billion industry, second only to the drug trade. Yet, it goes largely unnoticed. If “Anya17” is agitprop, it is so in the best sense of the term. And leave it to San Francisco’s adventurous Opera Parallèle to bring it to our attention.
It also is art. Gorb’s score is listenable, modern with touches of jazz, and appropriate to the subject (although I’m not ready to buy the record). Sometimes the melodic line is in the orchestra (ably directed by Nicole Paiement), with the singers’ voices riding atonally atop it. Sometimes it is the other way around. There is a beautiful Britten-like orchestral interlude (Gorb is British) following the death of one of the girls.
Kaye’s libretto is pure poetry — even when he is writing about women as meat on display in a butcher shop (a powerful aria sung by Viktor, the villain of the piece). Brian Staufenbiel’s direction and design is exceptional, as it has been in every Opera Parallèle production I have seen. Portions of the orchestra are visible through screens at the back of the stage. Projections of buildings and fields rushing by give you the feeling that you are traveling to “the West” with the girls. A brutal rape scene is all the more horrifying for remaining offstage.
The tale of Anya (a powerful Anna Noggle), betrayed by a man she thought loved her, and two of her fellow-abductees, as well as those who are profiting from their servitude, plays out in 11 short, tense scenes, with two dancers (Janet Das and Quilet Rarang), clad in plastic, moving props (notably a stained mattress) comforting and, occasionally, threatening the girls. Anya’s companions are well-sung by Shawnette Sulker as Mila, a young mother hoping to provide a better life for the child she left behind, and, especially, Laura Krumm as the lovely Elena, blind, addicted and heartbreaking.
San Francisco Opera regular Catherine Cook is her usual fabulous self as Natalia, an older woman, once trafficked, now turned trafficker. Her jazzy, tragic, autobiographical aria is a show-stopper. Her accomplice, the cruel Viktor, is well-sung by the impressive baritone Victor Benedetti and Andres Ramirez plays Anya’s lovers, one false and one true. Cook also doubles as a hospital social worker who tries to get through to the traumatized Anya after her escape.
Yes, Anya does escape and the opera ends on a note of hope as she begins to piece together the shards of her shattered self. But, in the real world, for every girl who gets away, many more remain stuck in a life of degradation that they did not choose. By shining a spotlight on this tragedy, Opera Parallèle has given us more than a work of art. Well done!