SÈance on a Wet Afternoon

despite what you may have read, Stephen Schwartz’s new opera is far from
all wet. In fact, last weekend’s matinee at the David H. Koch Theatre was
as much a success as it was a sÈance. NYCO’s East Coast premiere
production of SÈance on a Wet Afternoon, based upon the novel by Mark
McShane, epitomizes what the company stands for and points towards what opera
in America can be. The staging is smart and engaging, the music is used to
forward the drama, the singers are equally talented as actors and musicians,
and the result is both emotionally satisfying and thought-provoking. So why,
when there are $12 tickets available, are there empty seats?

For opera lovers, there is plenty to enjoy— pathos, demanding
vocalism, and lush orchestration unlike what you would find on a Broadway
stage. The music is accessible (yes, perhaps overly so), the acting polished,
and the show definitely benefits from its Broadway pedigree. Whatever your
proclivities or demographic, this art is meaningful and relevant, and it should
not be missed.

Together, father and son team Stephen and Scott Schwartz (acting as
composer/librettist and director, respectively) have created a compelling
theatrical event. From the moment the curtain rises during the highly cinematic
overture to reveal a stage hung with black metal chains, the audience is swept
along in suspense by the music and drama (thanks, in large part, to the efforts
of conductor George Manahan). Much of the first act takes place inside the home
of the Bill and Myra Foster, and Heidi Ettinger’s set struck an ideal
balance between an appropriately prosaic environment for the domestic drama and
a space where uncanny things can happen. The transparent walls suffuse with
color and light, then disappear altogether, and the audience’s
perspective on the drama is allowed to shift as the house itself rotates.

As Myra and Bill Foster, a couple who conspires to kidnap a child in order
to boost Myra’s career as a medium, Lauren Flanigan and Kim Josephson are
ideally matched to both the material itself and to each other. It should come
as no surprise that Flanigan excels here— she is a NYCO veteran and a
powerhouse singing-actress. Kim Josephson, in his NYCO debut, matches her
intensity and makes good use of the opera’s best material. Melody Moore,
in the role of the kidnapped child’s mother, stands out as well. Were
this production mounted on Broadway, Ms. Moore would undoubtedly be nominated
for a Tony award. She meets every vocal and dramatic challenge and breathes
life and individuality into a role which could easily be reduced to a trite
stereotype. As with Mr. Josephson, Ms. Moore is making her company debut with
this production and both artists exemplify the company’s success in its
mission to bring compelling performances of new works to New York City
audiences. Unfortunately, as Charles Clayton, tenor Todd Wilander did not live
up to the standard set by his partner. He was vocally cautious and played every
obvious emotion rather than establishing a connection with his excellent

As a quartet of Myra Foster’s regular clients, Jane Shaulis, Pamela
Jones, Doug Purcell, and Boyd Schlaefer played their individual parts with
plenty of verve and worked well as an ensemble. Phillip Boykin brought vocal
and physical gravitas to his role as the Inspector. The two children in the
cast, Michael Kepler Meo and Bailey Grey, are both veterans on the stage and
their performances were on par with their adult cohorts. The chorus of
reporters was well-rehearsed by both chorus master Charles F. Prestinari and
choreographer Matt Williams, but their material was largely irrelevant and

As previously mentioned, this production is not without flaws. Inevitably,
the singing is not as good as one would hear at the Metropolitan Opera next
door, nor is the diction as good as that heard on Broadway. While there are
many effective bits of theatrical magic (including bodies coming together to
form a streetcar and a black-and-white portrait that gains color during an
emotional aria), the overall drama of the piece is often undermined by
Schwartz’s own libretto. For the most part, every bit of suspense in the
plot is used to maximum effect but the scene in which Myra is in the room when
the kidnapper (his own husband) calls the Claytons falls flat. Furthermore,
Myra’s aria at the top of the second act hardly serves to develop the
drama, the music, or her character and it could easily be cut.

All in all, SÈance on a Wet Afternoon is an exciting opera to
watch, not only because of the suspenseful plot, but also because it speaks to
the future of opera in America. Yes, the music lacks complexity but, just as
not every movie is made to win an Academy Award, not every opera is meant to
stand up to repeated listening. SÈance is not an opera for the future in the
sense that it will remain in the repertoire forever. Rather, the work itself
and the quality of this production speak to a democratization of opera itself
and the encouraging trend that, finally, American artists are adopting the
genre as their own.

Alison Moritz

image_description=Stephen Schwartz [Photo courtesy of Wikipedia]
product_title=Stephen Schwartz: SÈance on a Wet Afternoon
product_by=Click here for the cast list and other information relating to this production
product_id=Above: Stephen Schwartz [Photo courtesy of Wikipedia]