Anyone who saw last fall’s Eastman Opera Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim’s dark tale, “Sweeney Todd,” knows the incredibly high level of performance to expect from one of the most acclaimed programs at Eastman. This year, the Opera took an adventurous, as well as risky, turn by putting on the world premiere of Charles Strouse’s new “East and West.”
Before we even talk about the opera itself, I think that is highly commendable that the Eastman Opera Theatre would deviate from the normal opera repertoire and instead welcome the massive undertaking that goes into preparing and premiering a new work. It would be nice to see brave programming like this continue.
Charles Strouse, a graduate of Eastman in the Class of 1947, has had a prolific career composing Broadway musicals, and is best known for “Annie,” “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Bye, Bye Birdie.” His new opera, “East and West,” is set in a world where fantasy and reality meet – a fairytale set in China and a theater opening at the University of Tallahassee. Even though “East and West” was a world premiere, it is not entirely new.
“Nightingale,” the original title of “East,” was written in 1982. “Nightingale” is a folktale about an ornery emperor in China who has no one to sing for him. He orders his aides to bring him the nightingale, a bird known throughout China for its beautiful voice. After a palace maid leads them to the nightingale, the bird is captured and locked up in the kingdom so it can sing for the emperor. Of course, the caged bird’s song dies out, so while a mechanical singing bird takes her place, the nightingale escapes captivity.
After the novelty wears off, the emperor and his court become incredibly agitated with the mechanical bird, and when it breaks down, realizing that the nightingale has left, the emperor becomes severely depressed. Just as death comes to take the emperor, the nightingale and maid return to save him. The emperor comes to realize that the beauty of the nightingale must be allowed to be free, and realizes that he is in love with his court maid. A nice happy ending to a work that clearly stands on its own as it has for the past 21 years.
It’s when “East” meets “West” that things start getting interesting. The second half of the program, “West,” is subtitled “The Future of the American Musical Theatre,” and this is the part of the show that is completely new.
The focus of the opera shifts completely to Tallahassee, Fla., where a new arts center is being opened with a reunion of the cast of “The Grass is a Greener,” a musical that debuted 25 years ago. This is where having Strouse, a composer who has spent most of his life in musical theater, pays off.
He delivers an insider’s look at the lives of the panel involved in the discussion, and it’s not always pretty. Each character’s flashbacks are presented in very dramatic asides that juxtapose with the public personas they are putting on display for the panel discussion. Interestingly enough, these two pieces have nothing to do with each other, but it sort of works solely on the inclusion of the Story Teller, a character who is in both shows. What’s interesting is that “East” is really an opera within an opera. It is set at the University of Tallahassee as a “student performance” of “Nightingale.”
The Story Teller is the character who presents “Nightingale” to the audience, and he acts as an observer throughout “East,” walking throughout scenes giving his commentary on what we’re about to see, but never interacting with any characters in the opera. Now this “Jiminy Cricket” character might work in “East,” but for the simple fact that the Story Teller stays the same character but becomes Joseph Auerbach, the writer of “The Grass is Greener” in “West.” Also strange is that the Story Teller delivers some words to segue from “East” to “West” after the intermission in which he adds, “Why did I write this? Because they paid me!” possibly suggesting that the Story Teller is behind “West” and perhaps the Story Teller is Charles Strouse himself talking. I don’t know the answer to these questions, and maybe the audience isn’t meant to know. It is part of creating a world where fantasy and reality co-exist.
Everything about the operas aside, they were performed commandingly and professionally by all of the Eastman students involved. The nightingale has been a source of inspiration for many composers, poets, and artists, and when a sound clip was played during the pre-concert discussion with Russell Miller, it is clear how this unassuming bird has captivated people for generations with its distinct and beautiful song. With the importance of the nightingale’s beautiful voice known, the casting was well done in anointing Annemarie Zmolek and Laura Rosen Puzio to tackle this virtuosic role on their corresponding nights. Sam Haddad was also noteworthy as the emperor. His vocal range was shown off from his first notes, and his transformation to old man Ned Hammer in “West” was impressive.
“East” and “West” contrast each other quite a bit, and that is to be expected since they were written over 21 years apart from each other.
From a musical standpoint, “East” seems like it would be at home on a Broadway stage. Strouse relied on his Broadway chops to carry him through flashy ensemble endings – the kind where the audience is essentially told to clap, but Strouse’s intellect as a composer came through during quieter and darker moments of “East.” In comparison, “West” was clearly an opera, with most of the dialogue between characters being sung, but the music in “West” seemed almost secondary to the story.
It was my feeling that I liked both works and felt that each stood alone as its own entity, but I still didn’t really understand the connection between the two. It almost would have seemed more fitting for the Story Teller to come out at the start of the second half and in a heavy British accent enthusiastically announce, “And now for something completely different!”
I caught up with Charles Strouse after the premiere and was able to get his thoughts on “East and West.” What he found so interesting about “West” was that by incorporating his life experience on Broadway, he could take a pop setting like an arts center opening in Tallahassee and make serious operatic material out of it. Through lines in “West” like “there are no secrets in theater” clearly show that Strouse was drawing from his personal experience, and it is likely that the animated cast of characters in “West” are based on real people Strouse has encountered. In fact, when asked why he wrote “West,” Strouse answered with a line taken directly out of the Story Teller’s mouth – “I was commissioned to write it.” Strouse went on to talk about how we get something unexpected from both stories. “‘East’ is a potential tragedy that turns out to be a happy ending, while ‘West – The Future of the American Musical Theatre’ is a comedy that turns out tragically.” Strouse also made clear that one of the reasons he paired his new work “West” with “Nightingale” is that he wanted “Nightingale” to be performed more, and as he saw some connections between the two works he realized they would be good companion pieces for each other, both in material and in length.
I’m not sure I totally understand “East and West,” but I do know that I liked it. Both pieces on the program were enjoyable in their own ways, and the presentation by the Eastman Opera Theatre was superb. So what was “East and West?” Well, if anything, it was new. A question is posed in “West” rather poignantly. “What’s the future of the American musical theater?” Perhaps “East and West” is it.
Levy can be reached email@example.com.