.. Lauren Flanigan, playing a homeless, unwed mother carrying her infant, sings: "You all pretend you are not in the same park with us." In that moment the park morphs into metaphor for a larger geography – the place where humanity resides and, in the context of this new opera, Central Park, a place where human values have eroded away under the stress of urban living.
Central Park consists of three one act operas, united by their setting, a verdant oasis surrounded by the concrete towers from which the wealthy have wonderful views and protected isolation from the gritty world of the streets below. Each of the three acts was composed by a different contemporary composer, each with a different librettist. Still, there is a unity to the piece beyond its setting. Shading from gray to darker to somber, all are tuned to the misunderstandings, the willful separations, the failures to connect in the big city.
The music of each of the composers is distinctive, but all speak in a contemporary, somewhat dissonant, relatively nonmelodic voice. It’s not music designed to send the audience off humming, but it is music that serves the drama well and has moments, when principals and chorus come together in emotional high points, that are both beautiful and moving.
Deborah Drattell’s opener, "The Festival of Regrets," places the minor drama of a bitter divorcee running into her ex against the background of a Jewish new year ritual in which bread crumbs are cast on the water, symbolically a casting away of regrets and a fresh start. The piece is light as a feather, but thoughtful, nonetheless, capturing in bittersweet tone the universal need for forgiveness. The music draws on Jewish themes, both liturgical and secular, nicely suited to a line such as: "It’s last year’s pain. It’s floating away."
The second piece, "Strawberry Fields," music by Michael Torke, centers on a delusional elderly woman who believes she is at the opera. Her selfish children arrive on the scene; they are sending her off to a home for the aged. A sympathetic student explains to the woman that people are paying their respects at a nearby John Lennon memorial; the Lennon/opera juxtaposition creates a bridge between the generations. "I need music in my life. Without it I’d wither away," she sings. "Strawberry Fields" gently reflects on living, aging and dying ("The sounds of life drown out the fear of nothingness."), and the importance of music in our lives.
"The Food of Love" is the very dark closer. Robert Beaser provides what is almost entirely an extended aria for the soprano, beautifully sung and acted by Flanigan, the homeless mother. She begs for a place for her son, but her pleas get her no help from the distracted urban passersby, some vaguely sympathetic, but caught up in their own cares.
The one-act format is to full length opera as short story is to a novel. While the connections between these three works do add to the overall resonance of the whole, each is essentially a sketch, a light brushing of themes and mood. It does not offer the more profound emotional connection of full length works which have room to develop characters in greater depth and complexity. Still, this is work of dry and unsaccharined intelligence, performed with conviction by skilled singing actors. It makes for a fine evening of musical theater.