Wednesday, November 23, 2016

PSU Opera superb in world premiere of "The Place Where You Started"

Hannah Consenz
It is a rare day when a college music department presents the world premiere of an opera, and even rarer still that such a production would be timely, relevant, and superbly done, but Portland State University’s opera program brought it all to fruition with its performance of “The Place Where You Started” on Friday, November 18th at the Lincoln Hall Studio Theater. Written by Mark Lanz Weiser with a libretto by Amy Punt, “The Place Where You Started” deftly handled themes that dealt with love, loss, illegal aliens, and fear. Delivered by six singers and a pianist, the music subtly blended dissonance with harmonic lines and worked naturally with the outstanding stage directions of Kristine McIntyre.

The story begins with Meredith, a screenwriter who lives with her boyfriend Steve, a computer programmer. While Meredith struggles to write a romantic script for a vapid vampire movie, she gets pressured by her agent Samantha to write compelling dialog as quickly as possible to meet the studio deadline. Between bouts of writer’s block, Meredith meets her gardener Macario, learns about gardening and finds that they both have an abiding interest in literature. She also finds out that Marcario is an illegal alien from La Paz, Bolivia where he had been a professor. In the meantime, Brianne and Brendan, friends of Meredith and Steve, think that Meredith’s interest in Macario has become an affair. Brendan admonishes Steve to report Marcario to the immigration authorities, and because he fears losing Meredith, Steve makes the phone that dooms Macario to deportation.

Hannah Consenz sang the role of Meredith with terrific conviction, bringing the audience into her character’s conflicted world. Darian Hutchinson created a poignant and understanding Macario. Grace’s Skinner played the self-assured, cell-phone wielding Samantha to the hilt. Alexander Trull’s Steve had a spot-on shallow geekiness. Saori Erickson marvelously conveyed the overbearing parental concerns of Brianne. Adam Ramaley upped the ante as Brendan. Both Erickson and Ramaley also excelled as movie actors and as immigration agents.
The intimate confines of PSU's studio theater worked exceptionally well for the singers. Only Trull’s voice sounded strained. All of the singers found their pitches despite relatively few noticeable leading notes. The piano was expertly played by Chuck Dillard, who was also the Music Director of the production.

Mike Gamble’s evocative projections enhanced the production with excellent visual cues, such as portions of the movie script that Meredith was working on. One of McIntyre’s best directions involved Meredith typing and mouthing the words of her characters (Lucinda/ Erickson and Roland/Ramaley) as they sang them.

According to the program notes by PSU Opera’s director, Christine Meadows, “The Place Where You Started” was written with Rossini-like speed by Weiser. Weiser, a member of the music faculty at the University of southern California’s Thornton School of Music, wrote the opera in a few months, somehow finding time to collaborate his efforts with those of librettist Amy Punt, a playwright and essayist who lives in Los Angeles. The libretto is not dry. It moves all over the place, incorporating humor, poetic language as well as harsh accusations to move the story. The story speaks incredibly well to our time, and our current political scene in which fear of people from the "wrong" countries is on a steep rise.

The opera ends on a hopeful note with Meredith finding Marcario somewhere south of the border. The ending made me wonder if the story would have more impact, if Meredith and Marcario didn’t meet again.

In any case, PSU Opera is taking its production of “The Place Where You Started” to China, where it will be performed at Soochow University and the Suzhou University of Science and Technology. Kudos to Meadows and all involved in this effort. Hopefully, those performances will serve as a springboard for more productions of this remarkable opera.

Hannah Consenz and Darian Hutchinson

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