Highway 1 USA. Photo: Cory Weaver.
The Dwarf. Photo: Cory Weaver.

Highway 1 USA & The Dwarf

Two recovered operas at LAOpera

Written by:
Karen Weinstein
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Chances are you have not heard of these two one act operas. You are forgiven but may regret it. Recovered Voices, a long time project of conductor James Conlon’s, has been about uncovering works of the past that have been unjustly overlooked. Prominent amongst them are works from victims of the Nazis, such as composer of The Dwarf, Alexander Zemlinsky who fled first from Berlin to Vienna and fled Vienna to New York. Highway 1, USA composer William Grant Still, an American, was overlooked right here because he was black. These two one act operas could not differ more except for the fact of being 20th century works and having been by overlooked by prejudice in their time.

James Conlon came to the LA Opera in 2006. The Dwarf was one of his earliest productions in Los Angeles. Then, as now, Rodrick Dixon was the lead as the Dwarf. The Dwarf Is a lush opera and the current production is its visual equal. The pre-curtain is a reproduction of Velazquez’s 1656 masterpiece, Las Meninas. When the curtain rises the set is a rich hall of mirrors. Women are wearing the exaggerated costumes as in the painting. The Dwarf himself, a gift from the sultan to the infanta (Donna Clark) on her 18th birthday, is lushly attired in vaguely oriental silks. The opera may have been written in the 1920’s, and Oscar Wilde story, The Birthday of the Infanta, which inspired Zemlinsky, was roughly contemporary, but the score and the libretto feel as though they are classical. Scenic Designer Ralph Funicello has matched the mood.

An insert in the program states “While unintended, LA Opera’s decision to cast this opera solely on vocal talent and acting ability and not physical characteristics may inadvertently amplify the impact of these scenes.” We can look back and decry the Nazi trampling of so-called ‘degenerate art, as is obvious. However, must we have wobbly knees if Rodrick Dixon, a black tenor with serious acting chops, has the role of a misshapen man? Need there be a ‘trigger warning?’ It is a piece written and set in times when the word dwarf was an acceptable word for someone afflicted with dwarfism. We live in a time when colorblind casting should be just that, colorblind. Enough said. You can. Sit back and enjoy, guilt free.

Highway 1, USA is securely set in the 20th century. Bob (Norman Garrett) and Mary (Nicole Heaston) are a couple who live in an apartment above their filling station. The set – appropriately – resembles a 1950’s sitcom more than an Opera. It is delightfully rendered by production designer Christopher Myers. As the curtain rises Mary is singing an aria about The Fox and The Hare, a classic black allegory of black migration from Africa. Two silent characters enact it and caper about the set during the piece. Bob and Mary are devoted to each other, but there is a fly in the ointment: Nate (Chaz’men Williams-Ali), Bob’s younger brother. He has sponged off of them, getting an education, then returning home with no effort to get a job, while they have struggled to fulfill Bob’s promise to his mother to take care of Nate. Sills score is beautiful, the LA Opera Orchestra is at its best, the voices are rich. Sadly the libretto, written by Sills wife, Verna Arvey, reads like a play and in no way melds with the music. As it is in English it is hard to ignore. I could not help but feel I would have preferred to simply hear the orchestra.

Hopefully this production of The Dwarf will propel it into more companies’ repertoires, a goal of the Recovered Voices project. Highway I will have a rougher row to hoe.
Karen Weinstein

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