Arts Listings

Goat Hall Cabaret Opera at Oakland Metro

By Jaime Robles, Special to the Planet
Friday August 17, 2007

Goat Hall Productions, normally housed in a theater on Potrero Hill (also known as Goat Hill), is presenting two premieres at Oakland Metro Theater in Jack London Square during August 23-26.  

Quirky, robust, and engaging, this cabaret-opera company features original work written by up-and-coming composers in new stagings that run the gamut from traditional to experimental. Their performers are energetic young singing professionals working collaboratively with the directors and composers. According to artistic director Harriet March Page, the work has to be “happening.”  

A fine and powerful vocalist, Page slipped into the edgier world of new opera when, after a hiatus from singing, she returned to her voice teacher and the two disagreed over her vocal categorization. She thought herself a character mezzo-soprano, he said she was a dramatic soprano. He wanted her to sing Brunnhilde; she wanted to sing Marcellina. That impulse to follow her own heart rather than others’ expectations is what brought her finally to produce her own opera series.  

Goat Hall’s aptly titled “Fresh Voices” is an annual summer event of two weekends of short narrative operas usually 15 to 30 minutes in length. The Oakland Metro premieres, however, are two hour-long fully staged operas back to back—composer Steven Clark’s Dionysus and composer Mark Alburger’s adaptation of J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. 

Clark’s Dionysus is loosely based on the dramatic events that comprise Euripides’ The Bacchae. Fascinated by mythology since childhood, Clark read The Bacchae in his early twenties and earmarked it as a story he wanted to come back to: “It showed the dark side of gods and was symbolic of the two-sided coin of life and death.” 

He was especially taken by Dionysus, who has been linked with the Hindu Krishna and the Egyptian Osiris, as well as with Christianity’s Jesus. Dionysus, a fertility god, is a resurrection god, one who dies and returns to life. The 50-minute long opera is a reimagining of the ancient Dionysian Mysteries, rites long lost in the past that are thought to reenact the cycle of birth and rebirth exemplified by the life story of the god.  

Dionysus opens with Pentheus, the King of Thebes, and his mother Agave worrying over the appearance of a priest who has enflamed the local female population with his Dionysian practices. Agave decides to infiltrate Dionysus’ followers, the maenads, and is soon lost to their ecstatic rites. The priest, who is the god Dionysus, convinces Pentheus to join the women, dressed in female robes. During their rituals Pentheus is killed and dismembered by the maenads. An earthquake destroys Thebes, and Agave returns to her destroyed city bearing the head of her son, whom she had not recognized during the ritual’s frenzy.  

Following the ancient Greek practice of having tragedy interrupted by the appearance of satyrs, who flooded the audience, playing tricks and telling bawdy jokes, Clark inserts a comic interlude just before the opera’s darkest moment. The comedy, an animation by Garth Kauffman projected onto an onstage screen, is woven into the plot. 

One of Clark’s concerns is that the audience will think Dionysus is a comedy. His previous short operas have been humorous and satiric: “Eye Eye Sailor,” a charming fantasy devised for sock puppet theater and “Amok Time,” which juxtaposed a video projection of an episode of Star Trek with live singers singing an original libretto in sync with the TV characters. In Dionysus, the maenads enact women giving birth, Clark comments that reenactments of “sexuality and reproduction tend to make people get giggly.”  

Clark’s intent, however, is “to create a piece of theater exposing, explaining, celebrating and practicing ritualistic theater drama.” 

The music of Dionysus combines recorded electronic music with live guitar and percussion. Although the music is inspired by progressive rock, its structure and harmonic material are seeded from transcriptions of Greek music, of which there are 120 existing fragments. “I’ve used the crazy changing rhythms, the quarter tones and the non-diatonic scale,” explains Clark, who has also scored the opera for the contemporary descendants of the ancient Greek kythera, the ancestor of the guitar, and the two-reed two-pipe flute: harps, guitars, flutes, oboes. The approach to the vocal line, he adds, is more like Wagner than Verdi, with a continuous flow of music making little distinction between recitative and aria, and sitting on a central key for long periods: “It’s not” he adds, “a numbers opera.” 

Mark Alburger believes he’s written 20 operas, 10 of which have been produced, but he’s lost track. His adaptation of The Playboy of the Western World was originally conceived as an accompaniment to performances of Riders to the Sea, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 1927 setting of Synge’s one-act tragedy of life in the fishing villages in the Aran Islands.  

Set in a village in remote western Ireland, The Playboy of the Western World tells the story of Christy Mahon, a young man who tells the habitués of a pub that he’s killed his father with a shovel. The locals are impressed by his tale, which gets more elaborate with each retelling, and the young women, especially the tavern owner’s delectable daughter Pegeen Mike, are entranced by the daring of his lawlessness.  

Alburger finds the tragicomic aspects of Synge’s play his kind of theater— “heckafunny with great resonant themes.”  

The libretto, written by Alburger, is set to heckawild music. Alburger began his compositional career by using collage as his principal technique. Now he composes by taking another composer’s piece and “whittling away at it,” rather in the style of Bach and others who have used pre-existing themes as compositional inspiration. In this case, Alburger has used Puccini’s Turandot as the basis of his setting—relating its exoticism to Synge’s portrayal of western Ireland as a remote and wilder world.  

Turandot opens with big strident chords that shift into a melodic recitative. Alburger likewise uses opening chords but instead shifts into an Irish jig. He uses the Irish pentatonic and hexatonic scales throughout the piece, deriving his understanding of Irish music from the Chieftains’ score for the movie Barry Lyndon. To that he adds the rhythmic structures from the second tableau of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and “a heavy dose of minimalism.” Overall, Alburger claims, “I do default tonal and throw in enough dissonance because it’s fun.” 


Goat Hall Productions presents two new mixed-media, one-act cabaret operas: Steven Clark’s Dionysus and Mark Alburger’s The Playboy of the Western World, at 8 p.m. Thursday Aug. 23 through Saturday Aug. 25, and at 7 p.m. Sunday Aug. 26. Oakland Metro Operahouse, 201 Broad-way, near Jack London Square. $25 per person for a cabaret table; $20, single seat; $15, students and seniors. For reservations and information, call (415) 289-6877. 


Photograph: Jaime Robles 

Karl Coryat as Pentheus, the King of Thebes, and Meghan Dribble as Queen Mother Agave are watched by a maenad, Lisa McHenry, in Steven Clark’s opera Dionysus, a Goat Hall Production at Oakland Metro Theater.