What Trios They Were

In the Ensemble Theatre this morning at the world premiere of What Wings They Were: The Case of Emeline, I began to think about the advantages of a three-person opera.

A historical recount of a civil case Emeline, a “free woman of color,” brought against Jesse P. Bolls in 1848 Houston, Houston Grand Opera’s (HGOco) What Wings They Were is a moving story told by soprano Gwendolyn Alfred, bass-baritone Christopher Besch, and tenor Brian Yeakley.

Composer John L. Cornelius II creates a wonderful score for the piano, performed with purpose and feeling by music director Bethany Self, but the vocal parts seemed separated from their accompaniment and even from one another. Any opera buff will admit to a love of ensemble numbers, traditionally the satisfying climax of an act (my favorite is the sextet “Chi Mi Frena in al Momento” from Donizetti’s Lucia Di Lammermoor), but with newer operas these ensemble numbers have fallen out of the repertoire somehow. Give me some cohesive harmony, some sense of melodic arc—good ensemble can still feel original, no one has condemned it with the old-fashioned stamp.

Three singers translate into opportunity for some rousing ensemble numbers. Bastien and Bastienne, a comedy Mozart wrote when he was only 12 in 1768, for example, has some beautiful duets and ends with a triumphant trio. In the same vein, Donizetti’s Rita, a comedy written in 1860, is ripe with jaunty duets. On the other hand, consider Stewart Wallace’s three-cast Hopper’s Wife, which makes its east coast premiere at the New York City Opera this weekend. The opera assigns a different singing genre to each character (and one character spends a good part holding her own in the nude). Mark Swed of the LA Times calls it “brave” in the realm of American opera for realist historical drama, though he stresses it’s also “not a particularly likable opera and certainly not nice.”

What Wings They Were: The Case of Emeline tells an awe-inspiring true story of a woman who sued for her freedom, and for the freedom of her two children, and won. Doesn’t such an incredible story deserve an equally galvanizing trio to ignite its victorious finish? Must new opera sound so isolated?

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