Operagasm Exclusive Review: Florida Grand Opera’s No Exit
by Vindhya Khare
FGO’s Unexpected Opera in an Unexpected Place…
Picture yourself seated in the narrow Arena lounge (formerly the NoWhere Lounge—how apropos) on the edge of South Beach swank. You’ve entered the innermost “clubby” chamber and the door closes. Thank you, James L. Knight Foundation, for another year of Unexpected Operas in Unexpected Places. Pre-show projections on a long wall flash suggestions of hell: chili peppers, bumper to bumper traffic on I-95, and passengers on a bus ride grimacing in utter despair as a child screams in the seat behind them. Are you ready? Andy Vores’ musical creation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist spin on hell is about to be revealed.
Welsh composer, Andy Vores, was present at the dress rehearsal and graciously took my questions with humility and a mischievous grin. He accepted the commission for “No Exit” in 2008 for Boston based Guerrilla Opera with the subject matter already in mind. Having only a soprano sax, viola, cello, and percussion on board for the project, that is what Vores skillfully scored. This quartet, conducted by Michael Sakir and Zoe Zeniodi, punctuated and elevated the text in tandem with the four singers. “The sounds need to suit the subject,” explained Vores, “inevitably this is not going to be full of beautiful singable melodies because it’s about three people starting their eternity in hell.” But while there are no traditional arias, he cleverly gives each character three distinct defining moments: the moment they present the façade of their pretend self to one another; the moment the real truth of their demise is revealed and; their horror as they catch a glimpse of how life has gone on without them. Each episode is compelling as Vores musically unravels each character into a state of raw decay. Is it any wonder that one of his early childhood opera memories is a production of Salome?
“What would be the point of brushing your teeth?”
An excellent question posed by Garcin when he puts two and two together and realizes that hygiene is pointless in hell. One by one the Valet escorts the three unwitting souls to their new, sparse co-habitation where there are no windows and no exit. Their naïve observations include, “there’s no toothbrush…no mirrors…no fire and brimstone…and no torturers”…or are there? Who knew they would each become the other’s worst nightmare? Sexy-rocker-chic lesbian, Inez, tries to work her seemingly benign manipulation on sophisticated glam-femme, Estelle, with the magnetic sultriness of a panther on the prowl. Estelle, devastated that there are no mirrors to confirm her beauty, then tries to seduce Garcin in a pathetic attempt to maintain her self-worth as a desirable woman. FGO’s Young Artists held nothing back as they left it all on the stage with amazing fervor, conviction and skill in handling Vores’ “challenging” (code for freaky difficult) score.
Caitlin McKechney, mezzo-soprano, reprised the role of Inez she sang in Chicago. From the moment she arrives we know she is seething with sensuality with a rich mezzo voice to match. She seamlessly transitioned from a longing hunger for Estelle to vulnerable dejection as she’s mocked by the others and then back to her insidious attempt at lady seduction—brilliantly acted!
Casey Finnigan (Garcin) is a bold tenor. His character took on a dramatic transformation from the moment he entered as a worried, yet arrogant, man who eventually admits to cheating on his saint of a wife. A first class schmuck, indeed. No wonder he was shot 12 times! He ultimately ends up a weeping, trembling wretch on the floor while Estelle mounts him like a stallion. Kudos to Finnigan for taking such risks baring his soul while singing so solidly.
Soprano, Riley Svatos, was the last to be escorted through the door as Estelle. We immediately identify her as insecure, shallow, and fascinating. Her character is almost likable as her brilliant soprano voice catapults through Vores jagged lines. How appalling to learn that she drowned her own bastard baby!
Carlton Ford’s portrayal of the Valet had an odd mix of enthusiasm and eeriness. He bravely managed Vores’ high tessitura with strong technique and clarity.
Buchman is brilliant…
Stage director, Jeffrey Marc Buchman, added a fascinating twist to Vores’ interpretation with the addition of a black and white video camera on a stationary tripod, occasionally capturing images of the passing singers projected on the wall behind them. Having dutifully escorted the three inhabitants to their respective “hell”, the Valet slinks behind the camera for his new full time job as cameraman. With creepy Peeping-Tom voracity, Ford turned the audience into a mass of stunned voyeurs as we uncomfortably witnessed up close (and I do mean very up close) every morbid and sordid confession and interaction of the three. His menacing stalking was like an invading paparazzo daring them to reveal more. The mesmerizing black and white projected images on the wall were like Rod Sperling, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick made a baby! Buchman’s last minute camera idea worked incredibly well and Vores agreed that it was perfect for the space and absolutely worked.
“Hell is other people”
In his final astute observation, Garcin concludes that, “there’s no need for a torture chamber and brimstone because hell is other people.” At the end of the performance we sat in stunned silence—my heart racing and in a cold sweat—awkwardly suspecting that everyone in the audience was secretly imagining their own collection of “other people.”
FGO hopes this late night opera in South Beach (10:00 pm show time) will attract a new audience. When asked about his thoughts on “No Exit” as somebody’s first opera experience Vores replied, “approach [it] on its own terms…engage with it for what it is and then it becomes very understandable.” We can look forward to FGO’s next unexpected opera in an unexpected place and also look forward to Andy Vores next opera which he promises will be “full of lightness and happiness.”