"An American Tragedy" not your typical opera

When thinking of a night at the opera, one's mind begins to flicker with images of decadent costumes colored in vibrant hues, set in motion by orchestral harmony. The commanding vocal chords of a soprano inexplicably lashes and awakens the soul in a foreign tongue. By the end of the last act, her ruminations on the ill-begotten pains of love and loss move the listener to silent yet uncontrollable tears. However, I discovered last Sunday that opera is in no way limited to this.

At the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, while attending an operatic rendition of Theodore Dreiser's classic novel, "An American Tragedy, I learned that opera can also be contemporary.

In a mixing of talented and up-and-coming performers, The Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra, The SMC Chorus and The Los Angeles Children's Chorus came together to give voice and sound to the opera.

"An American Tragedy" was composed by Tobias Picker and premiered at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 2005. This current 2010 rendition was conducted by James Martin and directed by Gail R. Gordon.

The plot, based on a true story, follows the story of Clyde Griffiths (played by baritone Chad Sloan). Clyde, born of a missionary mother and raised to become a flirtatious yet ambitious man, is offered the chance to work for a wealthy businessman's shirt factory in New York. Here he begins to circle the periphery of high society.

After a promotion, Clyde starts a fling with a naïve worker of the more humble sector, Roberta Alden, portrayed by Shana Blake Hill. Eventually though, another damsel of a wealthier breed piques Clyde's attention. Sondra Finchley, played by mezzo-soprano Nazani Ashjian, offers him a tempting entrance to high society and promising possibilities.

A major conflict of morality arises when Clyde decides to lie and conduct both affairs clandestinely. In Act II, tensions and circumstances rise and give way to, as the title suggests, tragedy.

Instead of decadence and vibrancy, the cast was overlaid in a muted color palette of mostly black, white and grey tones. This emphasized the undertones of nineteenth century religious morality. However, with few frills, the wonder of operatic exhibition was muted.

Unadorned by props nor painted backdrops, the stage was put into motion by a projection screen playing a stream of black and white photography. Most of the time, the stage was consumed in dynamic and saturated colors of red and blue, save for moments of great emotion, when lights of yellow and white then illuminated it.

Though the stage was used innovatively to show actions separated by time and space with fluidity, the process was sometimes ineffective. Simultaneous actions turned confusing and the opera, though performed in English, became almost foreign.

Still, the confusion offered the audience time to pause and ponder the enormous skill and control it takes to sing countless lines of dialogue. It was the resonating voices of strength that emerged, and the harmonies that were created by the orchestra, especially in scenes where the entirety of the cast sang together in unity, that were most moving.

Unfortunately it was not the opera I had always dreamed of. And though I didn't see anyone tearing up, I did see one or two in the front nodding off.

Severn Lange, a first time opera attendee perhaps said it best, "It's hard on the ears. It's contemporary. It's powerful. And it's still really lovely."