For as long as Marc Blitzstein had been writing music, he was determined to create socially conscious art that was accessible to a broad audience. Much of his early career was devoted to writing workers’ songs for the American Communist Party. When he started composing musical theater works Blitzstein stayed true to his leftist politics, setting texts that focused on working-class Americans and confronted issues such as capitalism, minority politics, and labor rights. His earliest works had limited, if any, success. In 1929 he began work on The Travelling Salesman, a “colloquial” opera that follows an everyman on his journey to become President of the United States, but Blitzstein abandoned the project not two years later. His 1937 pro-union musical The Cradle Will Rock made headlines only because of its bizarre premiere. The work was ready to be staged on Broadway, but at the last minute the federal government pulled the rug out from under the production, prohibiting venues from hosting the musical for fear of its overtly Communist message. In defiance, Blitzstein performed the musical anyway at a smaller theater, playing a piano reduction alone onstage while cast members sang their lines from seats in the audience.
Then in 1946, in the wake of his successful Airborne Symphony, Blitzstein received a commission to write a musical theater work to be performed by the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood. Here at last was an opportunity to write a large-scale, genuinely American work for a high-profile institution; the first step was to find a suitable libretto. Discussing ideas with his then-lover Bill Hewitt, Blitzstein broached the possibility of adapting the work of a friend and playwright, Lillian Hellman. The two had collaborated in the past, and Blitzstein was currently providing incidental music for her play, Another Part of the Forest. When Hewitt suggested adapting the play’s sequel, The Little Foxes, for the operatic stage, Blitzstein was immediately enthusiastic and enlisted Hellman for the project.
Set in postbellum Alabama, Another Part of the Forest follows the corruption of a working-class family who cheat their way into fortune, but succumb to lies, greed, and emotional abuse. Unbeknownst to most of his family, Marcus Hubbard, the family patriarch, acquires money by exploiting his fellow townspeople during the Civil War. He abuses his wife and his three children, Ben, Oscar, and Regina. Regina wishes to escape the small town with her wealthy lover, John Bagtry, but is prevented from doing so by her father. Ben, the eldest son, learns of his father’s lewd wartime dealings and uses the information to blackmail him, effectively dethroning him, and asserts control over the family. He arranges for both of his siblings to marry into money: Regina to banker Horace Giddens, and Oscar to John Bagtry’s sister, Birdie (and to her family’s valuable land.) Ben remains single and presides over the family property, monitoring the activities of Ben and Regina.
The Little Foxes finds the Hubbards twenty years later in the same Alabama town, now involved in their own questionable business practices. Regina and her brothers are visited by Mr. Marshall, an entrepreneur from Chicago who is looking to invest in the family’s plantation. Ben and Oscar have their share of the deal ready; Regina must first convince her sick husband, Horace, to agree and—if she can—manipulate her brothers into allotting to her a larger share of the profit. Regina is the operatic setting of their story: at once intriguing and repulsive, and in Blitzstein’s words, full of “greed and glamor.”
Horace (Daren Jackson) greeting his brother-in-law
Nick Olcott’s staging of Regina with the Maryland Opera Studio at the University of Maryland, College Park is true to the original setting, including period-appropriate costumes and an exaggerated drawl that places us undoubtedly in the Deep South. An especially challenging aspect of this opera is its inclusion of sung text, spoken words over music, and plain speech. The cast handles this with apparent ease, alternating seamlessly between speech and song without interrupting the flow of dialogue. Conductor Craig Kier expertly navigates through the opera’s wide variety of musical styles, ranging from ragtime to waltzes, and gives a convincing musical performance despite the orchestra’s frequent struggles with intonation.
Regina’s title character is ruthless and heartless from the very first scene, when she stamps out the joyful singing and dancing of her daughter, Zan, and her servants, Cal and Addie, while an onstage band plays ragtime music. Regina was sung by mezzo-soprano Louisa Waycott on Thursday, April 7 and Nicole Levesque on Sunday, April 10. Waycott portrays a reserved but calculating Regina, showing brief moments of vulnerability that remind us of her character’s humanity. This occasional softness, however, is balanced aurally by her appropriately steely tone, and an upper register that cuts through the orchestral texture like a knife. Levesque sings with dramatic intensity that matches her delightfully cold-blooded, haughty Regina. Here is a character who takes great pleasure in her own cruelty, sneering at her daughter and delivering her nastiest lines with an ingratiating smile. Her smoky middle register accents Regina’s insatiable lust for money, power, and “things.” Each singer inspires a slightly different reaction from her fellow cast members, yielding two unique but equally provocative performances.
Soprano Laynee Dell Woodward breathes life into the dismal household by imbuing the long-suffering Birdie with a complex inner life. She calls attention to Birdie’s relationships with Zan and Horace, her nostalgia for her childhood home, and her love for music, resulting in one of the most interesting characters in the opera. Woodward’s tone is sweet and effortless, and her shimmering high register is showcased in her Act I vocalise, which she modifies from the original score to incorporate a stunning high F6.
Bass-baritone Daren Jackson is a commanding presence in the role of Horace Giddens from the moment he appears onstage. His physical poise and is mirrored by his rich timbre and the natural ease with which he projects in his low register. He joins Birdie, Zan, and Addie at the opening of Act III for a charming performance of the lighthearted “Rain Quartet,” the only silver lining to the dark final act. In this quartet, Horace stands up from his wheelchair and proclaims, “Some people eat all the earth, some people stand around and watch while they eat.” Jackson delivers this line, a biblical allusion, with authority and stateliness, and there is no doubt that his words embody the true spirit of Regina.
Baritones Anthony Eversole and Mark Wanich play against one another brilliantly in their respective roles as Oscar and Ben Hubbard. Eversole exaggerates Oscar’s volatility; he is temperamental, abusive toward Birdie, and bitter about his longstanding subservience to his brother. Wanich plays Ben with humor and irreverence, often providing his scenes with much-needed comic relief.
Soprano Chelsea Davidson convincingly portrays Zan’s loss of childlike innocence as she is slowly exposed to the horrors of her family’s legacy. Davidson sings with a silvery tone that highlights Zan’s youth; at the same time she is able to consistently project to the back of the hall, reminding us that although Zan is young, she is far from powerless.
Through no fault of the directors or cast, certain scenes in the opera are simply too busy, musically and visually. One such instance is the end of Act II when the Hubbards, gathered on a balcony, have a heated argument while a raucous party carries on in the parlor below. For all the singers’ efforts, it is virtually impossible to hear the conversation over the din of singing, dancing, stomping party guests; were it not for the surtitles, the audience would miss a great deal of important dialogue. Olcott’s solution of visually separating the family from their guests is a creative one, but in reality the dancing is distracting and the Hubbards appear distant and out of focus.
There is a fruitful discussion to be had regarding Regina’s themes of unadulterated greed and inhumanity in light of America’s shifting social milieu. At the time of the work’s premiere in the mid-twentieth century, Regina’s actions were meant to be shocking, callous, and evil; in fact, the opera’s working title was A Bitch in the House. Today’s audience, however, might look back at Regina as a product of her environment. Perhaps the reason that she lies, cheats, and steals is not due to pure selfishness and malice; perhaps she is a woman who has been controlled by male relatives her entire life, and is ready to escape her arranged marriage by any means necessary.
However one chooses to interpret Regina, the Maryland Opera Studio puts on an entertaining and engaging production that initiates dialogue about power and materialism. Through it, we may observe how far America has come, and just how far it has to go. The production closes on Saturday, April 16th.
On Friday, April 8th, 2016, the Maryland Opera Studio debuted Marc Blitzstein’s Regina at the Kay Theatre of The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (University of Maryland, College Park). Set in the early twentieth-century rural South, the show centers around Regina Hubbard Giddens and her conniving brothers’ plot to secure a business deal at the expense of their community. The family drama explores the abuse, manipulation, and betrayal within the Hubbard clan in their effort to maximize their family fortune. By presenting this lesser-known title that condemns capitalism and greed while exposing both individual and institutionalized racism, director Nick Olcott and conductor Craig Kier make a strong statement on our current political climate regarding class and racial inequality and prove that student opera need not be toothless or apolitical.
Marc Blitzstein, Regina’s composer and librettist, was no stranger to controversy and politics. An outspoken leftist and homosexual, the composer aligned himself philosophically and politically with German artists Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Blitzstein first successful theatrical work, 1937 The Cradle Will Rock, was a product of their influence: its allegorical plot promotes steelworkers unions and attacks American corporate corruption. Even more successful was Blitzstein’s English-language adaptation of Weill and Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, which also offers a progressive political critique of society. Due to his leftist art and politics, Blitzstein was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1950s to testify about his affiliation with the Communist Party; the composer was ultimately blacklisted.
Blitzstein’s Regina has been problematic since its conception. The composer based his opera on Lillian Hellman’s sophisticated 1939 drama, The Little Foxes. Hellman, known for being difficult and possessive about her work, was an influential force in the compositional process and often angled for changes in Blitzstein’s drafts. Her notes consistently repudiated the composer’s interpretations of Southern culture and her characters. Additionally, the playwright often sent conflicting critiques to Blitzstein about adhering too close to the original text or drifting too far away from it. As a result, Regina was plagued by constant revisions up until its opening week in 1949. Thereafter Blitzstein and others continued to make changes for subsequent revivals; most recent mountings of the opera often cut the score to omit problematic racial stereotypes. Consequently, a standard, definitive version of the opera does not exist in score or recording.
This season, the Maryland Opera Studio provides its own unique version of Regina by presenting the opera’s racial subtext through “alternative” casting, where originally black characters are played by white actors and vice versa. This manifests most prominently with the casting of Daren Jackson, a black bass, as Horace, the sympathetic white patriarch, and Alexandra Christoforakis, a white mezzo-soprano, as Addie, the black mammy. Both singers give stunning performances that capture the emotional essence of these characters. And, despite this alternative casting in its ensemble and chorus, the production continues to engage with the racial prejudices of the time period depicted in the opera. Student productions often confront limited options with respect to race-conscious casting, and MSO’s tactful approach and awareness of its implication, complete with a public roundtable on the topic of race and art, offers a model for other student studios and professional companies.
As with the casting, Diana Chun’s set design presents an alternative concept of Regina’s home and world. The gilded Southern mansion’s strong slanted angles, floating golden picture frames, and grand serpentine staircase suggest opulence, while highlighting something sinister about the Hubbard family. This abstract set design is well-balanced with both realist lighting and period costumes. Lighting designer Max Doolittle’s ability to simulate an evening sky or a rainy afternoon through the center-stage “mega-window” is breathtaking. Tyler Gunther’s costuming is best represented during the party scene in Act II. The pale pastels of the chorus’s evening gowns offer an intriguing contrast to the black and gold color scheme of the set. Taken together, I was pleased with the unique and well executed design elements that enhanced the story without becoming a distraction.
Unfortunately, Craig Kier’s pit orchestra cannot claim the same success, as at times its dominating sound obstructed vocal performances and story-driving dialog. This is not to say their performance was anything less than stellar. The transitional music was captivating, and the chorus of Act II and ensemble performances throughout were clear and well balanced. Regrettably, however, many scenes of spoken dialog and occasional arias were muffled beneath the orchestra.
The members of the opera chorus were skilled in both singing and acting. The party scene at the end of Act II offered comic relief, as various members of the chorus expressed about their catty distrust of the Hubbard-Giddens family while being uncontrollably transfixed by the decadence of Regina’s party. Though, much like the pit orchestra, their wild dancing during the gallop chorus distracted from the action during a pivotal moment in the story.
The opening-night student cast was mostly strong and near-professional. Mezzo-soprano Louisa Waycott led as the dangerous titular character Regina. Though consistently good throughout, her best moments were in the first half of the show, particularly in the scene leading up to the aria “The Best Thing of All.” Additionally, her monotone orders to Cal, the house servant, as Regina prepares for her party at the beginning of Act II showcased Waycott’s lighter comic abilities. Unfortunately, the mezzo-soprano’s acting never truly expressed the hues of Regina’s darker side. This was especially evident in the cold scenes between her and Horace; Regina’s commanding and distasteful lines such as “I’ll be waiting [for you to die]” and “I’ll be lucky again [when you die]” lacked the authentic toxicity I was expecting from a femme fatale.
Bass Daren Jackson, playing Regina’s compassionate and moral husband Horace, gave a fabulous vocal and acting performance, providing the audience with a sincere character arch in a fraction of stage time compared to other characters. His solo “Consider the Rain” in the spectacular Rain Quartet at the beginning of Act III delicately articulated the ethical dimension of the plot withheld up until that point.
Chelsea Davidson showcased her lovely soprano voice as Zane, the young naive daughter of Regina and Horace, yet it was often covered by the pit orchestra. Her acting favored the lighter aspects of her character, while her fraught confrontations with Regina, especially at the end, seemed slightly stilted.
As for Regina’s deceitful brothers, baritone Anthony Eversole was commanding in the role of Oscar, whereas Mark Wanich was less convincing as the older and wiser Ben. Their two acting styles were nearly identical, brutish and loud, which unfortunately made for a stale drama in many of their scenes.
The strongest and most consistently natural performance was that of soprano Laynee Dell Woodward’s Birdie, Regina’s sad, endearing alcoholic sister-in-law. On a technical level, Woodward was stunning: her coloratura arpeggios in Act I were spot-on, and her descant in Act II added a favorable light aura to “Addie’s Blues”. Both her recitative and arias were fabulous and enrapturing, starting within the first ten minutes of the opera with her entrance scene and aria “Music, Music, Music.” In almost every scene involving Birdie, Woodward’s acting captured the audience’s undivided attention with meticulously chosen gestures and vulnerable expressions that carried an intense gravitational pull. A high point of the entire opera was “Birdie’s Aria” in Act III, in which the character declares: “I drink!” Due to Woodward’s commanding presence, this seemingly sideline moment presented much more drama than Regina’s climactic high C “I’ll be waiting!” in the finale of Act II, despite the efforts of staging and intense lighting for the latter. This may be a coloratura-soprano bias, but just as Woodward’s notes soared above the others’ in the ensemble, so did her enchanting performance as Birdie.
Overall, director Nick Olcott and conductor Craig Kier presented a winning production of this out-of-the-canon opera. Both cast and crew rose to the occasion to present a show that is both thought-provoking and entertaining. Issues of race and class are at the forefront of this production, and MSO’s team takes on these themes in respectful and innovative ways. Though there are still some areas to improve, particularly the balance of the pit orchestra with the ensemble, I highly suggest seeing MSO’s Regina, as this period piece allows its audience to reflect on the timely themes of greed and injustice while imagining the bright futures for its strong student performers and designers. The production closes on Saturday, April 16th.
When Maryland Opera Studio (MOS) announced that it would be doing Marc Blitzstein’s opera Regina, many people, myself included, were unfamiliar with the piece. The fact is that this work is rarely staged due to its high production cost, challenging music, and the herculean task of trying to make sense of the many different versions of the score. According to director Nick Olcott, the MOS production features a “franken-version,” an amalgamation of features from five main variant currently in existence.
Regina’s lack of a definitive score is largely due to its performance history. A disappointing initial run on Broadway in 1949 forced Blitzstein to adapt the piece for New York City Opera, and prompted a confession that his vision for Regina was always more operatic. Although this revival was more successful, the piece didn’t find a safe haven on the operatic stage either. A proposal to perform Regina at La Scala was rejected due to its incompatibility with a traditional idea of opera. Ultimately, the piece didn’t make it into the canonic repertoire, and was destined to continue to be revised again and again.
And yet, there is something significant about Regina. Leonard Bernstein would agree: he was a huge advocate for the work, both after its Broadway cancellation and during the campaign for its production at La Scala, where Bernstein himself was to conduct it. What La Scala missed and Bernstein caught was the power of Blitzstein’s message that reflected the social atmosphere of his time: a privileged white family profiting at the expense of the black community in their town; the voice of social justice communicated through ragtime, spirituals, jazz and blues; and, most prominently, the destructive nature of greed. And let’s face it: we haven’t outgrown these themes. Regina is as important a work today as it has ever been.
Based on the play The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman, who collaborated with Blitzstein on this project, Regina is set in sleepy Alabama during the 1900s. It tells the story of the Hubbard siblings, Ben, Oscar and Regina, whose greed causes them to turn away from their conscience and against one another. The story also depicts the plight of their victims: Oscar’s long-suffering wife Birdie, Regina’s husband Horace and their daughter, Alexandra or Zan for short. We also see Oscar and Birdie’s son Leo take after his father, much to his mother’s dismay. Servants Addie and Cal struggle to keep up with the Hubbards’ demands, while protecting Zan, Birdie and Horace as much as they can. The main storyline revolves around a business scheme the Hubbards concoct with William Marshall, a rich banker from Chicago, whom they go to great lengths to impress.
I am compelled to start the review by celebrating the chorus. Largely thanks to the enchanting choreography by Adriane Fang, the chorus rivaled the main cast for attention, particularly during the party scene (Act 2 Scene 2). Throughout the production, the chorus members provided an impressive sound, coupled with entertaining facial expressions and clear diction. The chorus is also a driving force for the narrative, thanks to the efforts of the stage director Nick Olcott.
Olcott provides a glimpse into the relationship the Hubbard family has with the town, particularly in the opening scene where we witness the racial tensions that the family reinforces. In general, Olcott misses no chance to provide the audience with more of the story, whether by giving Regina an opportunity to drop her faÁade when her face isn’t visible to other characters on stage, or by having Birdie flit around, desperately communicating her wishes, only to have her power swatted away by the Hubbard siblings.
One of the few qualms I had about the production concerned the issue of balance between the singers and the orchestra, particularly at the beginning where the brass tended to overpower the singers, although Blitzstein’s heavy scoring is partially to blame. That aside, the instrumental sections were impressive, with the onstage jazz band especially charming. Conductor Craig Kier kept everyone together, for the most part, and the orchestra offered some unique character insights, particularly during Regina’s disturbing conversation with Horace at his homecoming (Act 2 Scene 1).
The casting of Horace and Addie in this production has sparked a debate about non-traditional (or color-blind) casting: Horace, an affluent Southern man, is depicted by a black man, and Addie, a traditional black mammy, by a white woman. Yet Daren Jackson with his mature, booming bass commands the stage so powerfully as Horace, while Addie is portrayed by Alexandra Christoforkanis with such nurturing warmth and humor that any questions of color casting are forgotten.
Addie’s counterpart, the overworked Cal, is played by Tshegofatso Moeng, who gives a charming performance. Chelsea Davidson depicts the hopeful Zan with a dazzling voice and convincing youthfulness of manner. Her aunt and ally, Birdie is played by Laynee Dell Woodward, whose flawless coloratura and relentless stage energy makes it easy to see into the heart of this heartbreaking, elderberry-wine-coveting character. Birdie’s relationship with her abusive husband Oscar Hubbard is expertly depicted: all it takes is one dominant hand on her shoulder, and we understand what is going on behind closed doors. Anthony Eversole’s depiction of Oscar highlights all the insecurities and frustrations of the character, primarily induced by his brother Ben, the head of the family. Mark Wanich skillfully brings out the most interesting aspects of Ben: his unnerving ability to find amusement in the darkest of circumstance, his willingness to step on anyone for the sake of the scheme, and the unexpected glimmer of respect for his sister. Between them, Wanich and Eversole also showed the most impressive grasp of the southern dialect among the cast.
I had the pleasure of witnessing the production with both casts (the characters of Regina, Leo, and Mr. Marshall are all double casted). On April 8th, Louisa Waycott subtly let a few of Regina’s loose threads show, in contrast with the terrifyingly harsh depiction of the title role by Nicole Levesque at the April 10th performance. Both mezzos’ timbres proved impressive throughout the extremely challenging and stylistically eclectic material Blitzstein provides them. Tenors Matt Hill and Alec Feiss swapped roles, each offering a convincingly blundering Leo, and a charming Mr. Marshall. Hill in particular was most consistent at projecting during the dialogue sections.
One of the most impressive aspects of this production is that all its visual aspects were designed by graduate students. Tyler Gunther created costumes well suited to each character, with Regina’s, Zan’s and Birdie’s party dresses particularly stunning. Max Doolittle’s lighting design brought out the warmth in the “good” characters, and the twisted aspects of the Hubbards, and provided a lot of nuance in the shading of the window and the hallway of the set. The set, designed by Diana Chun, was anxiety-inducing in the best way. The staircase in particular was instrumental in establishing the tension, while the red-black-and-gold color scheme was a clear reflection of the storyline and the characters.
Regina runs through April 16th, 2016.
Regina: Music and Drama
There’s this perennial problem in the music world today about whether certain dramatic works are more correctly categorized as operas or musicals. It’s a problem that is ostensibly solved on a case by case basis and often involves an implicit sort of spectrum with opera at one end, musical theater at the other, and all but a few works falling near one or the other of these two extremes. Porgy and Bess, Candide, Light in the Piazza, and Sweeney Todd, for instance, can all arguably be labeled as one of these two genres, but the extent to which they also function effectively within the other always seems to problematize the classification. Of course, Sweeney Todd is a musical, but even Sondheim admits that it’s an opera when performed by an opera company. The determining factor is then where and for whom a work is performed. This brings us to Marc Blitzstein’s Regina. To which genre does it rightly belong? The simple answer is that it’s an opera. We have the composer’s words on the subject to guide us, but even his own conception of the work perhaps oversimplifies the situation to some extent. The work had its beginnings on the Broadway stage, opening in 1949 and directed by Bobby Lewis. It also features a number of hallmarks of the Broadway musical, such as a heavy reliance on spoken dialogue. Over the course of its many revisions, however, Blitzstein did progressively remove more and more of the spoken dialogue in favor of sung material, in an effort to make the work more operatic.
Regina is based on Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes that tells the story of the Hubbards, a wealthy Alabama family around the turn of the 20th century and their power struggle in an effort to profit from a potential business deal with a wealthy Northern businessman. The eponymous “queen,” Regina, and her two brothers, Ben and Oscar, position their loved ones like pawns in a very lucrative chess match. As they exploit the poor and the black community in their town, they also exploit the powerless members of their family. Oscar’s wife Birdie has been driven to drink after her husband’s family acquired her ancestral plantation, Lionnet, a recurring symbol of hope, escape, and melancholic nostalgia for a purer bygone time. The Hubbards’ personal avarice clearly stands here for a large-scale capitalist greed, and we are made to see that both are cyclical. Just as the family has ruined Birdie’s life, they are poised to do the same to Alexandra, Regina’s daughter and Birdie’s niece.
Friday’s production with the Maryland Opera Studio presented an amalgam of Blitzstein’s various revisions, taking key elements from each in order to present a whole that was both coherent and accommodating to modern sensibilities and attention spans, clocking in at around 3 hours (inclusive of two intermissions). Some elements were cut from the production for practical reasons. Though the original play deals directly with the topic of race, and though Blitzstein attempted to address race within the sphere of the music itself, including an all-black onstage jazz band and a white onstage piano trio, MOS has done away with the portrayal of race altogether, in order to accommodate the ethnicities of the available cast. Horace, Regina’s husband and father to Alexandra, is portrayed by a black man, while Regina and “Zan” are both white, a logistical impossibility for the time period, to put it politely. Likewise, Addie, the housekeeper, a black character, is portrayed by a white singer. Neither of these casting decisions feels out of place, though, as the chorus and onstage musicians features a healthy mix of black, white, Asian, and other faces in all sorts of roles, giving the work an ethereal, otherworldly quality in which race isn’t the driving force of oppression, but rather personal capitalistic greed is.
The exception is a scene at the very opening of the prologue where stage action portrays a racially tinged dispute erupting between black and white hired hands over the day’s wages. This is an unfortunate inclusion, both because it muddles the multi-racial presentation of the show, but also, and more importantly, because the stage business is too busy; it distracts from plot clarity and strong, visual tableaux that serve as character introductions. Although the show recovers handily enough from this initial misstep, it would have been much better served by drawing attention from the start to the beautiful artifice of the drama about to unfold. The truly spectacular designs by graduate students Tyler Gunther (costumes), Max Doolittle (lighting), and Diana Chun (set) accomplished this easily. Chun’s set, modern and surreal in atmosphere, was centered on a gigantic, nigh gaudy window and a staircase, both lit with tremendous sensitivity by Doolittle. Gunther’s costumes featured anachronistic bold prints that blended into the aesthetic of Chun’s set adeptly, contributing to the production’s overall surreal and otherworldly affect. Together, these elements would from time to time create immensely powerful and striking tableaux, one of the greatest strengths of the production.
On the musical front, the vocal performances were quite strong as well. Louisa Waycott’s Regina was generally powerful, yet sweet enough when it suited the character’s needs; Daren Jackson sang Horace with a tremendous gravitas and strength, Mark Wanich and Anthony Eversole lent an appropriate vocal richness to Ben and Oscar, respectively; while Chelsea Davidson (Alexandra) and Laynee Dell Woodward (Birdie)’s beautiful sopranos underscored their characters’ innocence and purity. Some of the voices sounded tired from time to time, but a university production so near the end of the semester could fare much worse. The orchestra under Maestro Craig Kier provided a lush, boisterous, or somber backdrop against which the drama on stage unfolded. Musically the production was a success. Where the show faltered was in its dramatic elements. Almost all of the requisite ingredients for a fully successful show were present, and on the whole, the opera really was quite effective, but a few key dramatic shortcomings stymied an otherwise powerful presentation.
The most glaring deficiency was the various levels of acting ability among the cast. Regina is not an 18th century opera. The plot and characters are complex and demanding in a way that much of the older operatic canon is not. Regina was played with little specificity as to motivation, and a general through-line in her actions was often not present. This problem, with Regina and some other characters as well, was highlighted by the fact that the show is in English, in addition to the supertitles that helped the audience follow the text easily. Quite often, though, the titles served as an indictment of poorly acted moments. Zan in particular suffered from poorly motivated actions, most importantly at the end, when her anger and discontent with her mother and the family felt hollow and lacking a true emotional foundation. The most unfortunate instance of this problem was the tremendous disparity of dramatic ability between Oscar and Birdie. Their interaction acts as a microcosm for the family in the show’s plot, which in turn mirrors the society in general. Sadly, though Oscar sang with one of the richer voices in the show, his acting showed little skill or awareness, particularly of his own body, while Birdie’s character, on the other hand, shone brighter than any other on stage. It drained much of the weight and tension from their relationship to have the strongest actor play opposite the weakest.
Having said all this, let’s return to the initial discussion of categorizing operas and musicals. If I’ve been at all harsh in my examination of this production, it may not be the fault of the company, but rather of the genre of the work. It’s quite possible that, despite Blitzstein’s own opinion that the work is an opera, Regina has been miscategorized. Perhaps it is neither opera nor musical, but something else entirely. If we allow ourselves to define a piece’s genre not by where it is performed, but rather by who would best perform it, then Regina is neither. The vocal demands of the show are too high for a singer without solid classical training, but likewise, the characters, plot, and the general drama of the show are tremendously complex and require powerful and convincing actors. No company, opera or musical theater, has the capability of putting on such a show, because such performers simply don’t exist. But perhaps they should. Perhaps this is not an aberration, but an emerging trend in the 20th century. Regina, along with Sweeney Todd, Light in the Piazza, Candide, and similar works are all part of a new genre, a halfway point between the opera of yesterday and the musical of today. Perhaps this is the future of American opera, a form that is equally focused on musical and dramatic integrity. The works exist. Now all that is left is to start performing them—really and truly performing them.
Think opera, and the United States is not one of the first countries that come to mind. Sure, there are a few older classics such as George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, as well as some newer works by Philip Glass and John Adams that will soon earn their place in the canon if they have not already done so. Compared to countries such as Italy and Germany, pickings of American opera, even for a willing director, are rather slim. After all, The United States is the home of the Great White Way, and the birthplace of the musical. But along with the abundance of musicals, there are operas; and then there are the pieces in-between, such as Marc Blitzstein’s Regina. Premiered on Broadway in 1949 and staged by the New York City Opera four years later, this relatively unknown work falls in the grey area between opera and musical, not only because of the location of its premiere but also because of Blitzstein’s treatment of the music. He utilizes traditional operatic styles, but also pulls from newer, and more distinctly American genres, including musical, ragtime, and gospel.
The Maryland Opera Studio’s production of Blitzstein’s Regina is successful in showcasing the vocal talent at the school and bringing this little-known American work back into the public eye. The composition, based on Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes, follows the title character and her two brothers plotting and conspiring their way to fortune in turn-of-the-century Alabama. Premiered during the second Red Scare, Regina is a brash condemnation of American capitalism and the greed that it creates. Over the course of its production history, Blitzstein and others have revised the work, leaving Regina without a definitive version. That, plus Blitzstein’s clunky adaptation of Hellman’s play leave little question as to why the work is rarely performed. MOS chose to use primarily the 1991 Scottish Opera version and has been able to work around most of its problems to present an entertaining production of Regina.
The plot of Regina focuses on the Hubbard siblings, Regina, Ben, and Oscar, trying to get rich by convincing a Chicago businessman, Mr. Marshall, to build a cotton mill near their plantation. Regina schemes throughout, manipulating everyone in order to get her way. She uses her daughter Alexandra (Zan for short) to lure her ailing husband Horace back from the hospital so he can invest in the business deal. The deal happens, but without Regina, after Ben, Oscar, and Oscar’s son Leo steal a fortune in bonds from Horace’s safety deposit box. Regina wants to blackmail her brothers but Horace refuses, also threatening to disinherit her as payback for her neglect. Fortunately for Regina, he then suffers a massive heart attack. She watches idly as he pleads in vain for his medication. Horace dies shortly thereafter; with his threats put to rest, Regina successfully blackmails her brothers into giving her a 75% share in the family company. Zan, reflecting on the words of her now deceased father, realizes how materialistic her mother is and ends up leaving her. Regina is left with money, and nothing else.
The title role is double cast and portrayed by Nicole Levesque and Louisa Waycott. Each brings a different dimension to the character, and both certainly have the voice to take on such a commanding role. Ms Levesque’s Regina is sinfully fun to watch, allowing the audience to indulge in her insatiable desire for money and her love of “things” throughout the whole performance. Pure rage is felt when at the end of the act II party scene she shrieks at Horace over the whirlwind of a dance below her: “I hope you die…I’ll be waiting!”
Ms Waycott’s interpretation of Regina is a more nuanced one. In her first scene entertaining Mr. Marshall, Regina is a proper Southern lady, with all the charm and grace one would expect. Once Mr. Marshall leaves, however, Regina’s true intentions and her obsession with money are revealed. Even in the scenes where Regina is at her most conniving, Ms Waycott emphasizes the Southern setting of the work by still carrying a layer of sweetness about her character, even though the sweetness is merely a ploy to get what she wants. She delivers Regina’s manifesto “The Best Thing of All” powerfully, making it clear that Regina knows what she wants and how to get it.
For the most part, the downfall of Regina is the fault of Blitzstein and not the MOS. The work begins with a prologue that Blitzstein added to Hellman’s play against the writer’s wishes. In the prologue, the head servants of Regina’s household, Addie and Cal, calm the deliverymen after a fight breaks out over wages by singing a hymn. Alexandra Christoforakis who plays Addie does a wonderful job, saving this otherwise tiresome scene that does not align with the action to follow. The first act also suffers greatly from Blitzstein’s lack of clarity on who is the main character in the story. While the work is titled Regina, act 1 could have been titled Birdie. Birdie, played by Laynee Dell Woodward, is the alcoholic wife of Oscar Hubbard. Ms Woodward’s portrayal of Birdie skews young, instead of depicting the older woman nostalgic for her youth, as in her opening number “Music,” a reminiscence of her family’s trips to Europe when she was younger, and her love of music. Ms Woodward has a lovely voice, which is shown off to its full extent here. However, the text has very little relation to the rest of the opera, and what it does in terms of characterization is accomplished elsewhere. The preeminent placement of “Music” focuses much of the attention on Birdie in the first act, at the expense of Regina. In addition, Birdie is present through almost the entire act (Regina is not), and dominates the closing scene, warning Zan about the plans to have her marry her cousin (and Birdie’s son) Leo. Because of this Oscar ends up striking her, making the audience sympathetic to Birdie. The lack of focus on who is indeed the main character in the first act is compounded by production choices. Birdie is in a vibrant green dress while Regina wears a dark red one that blends into the primarily black, gold, and red palette of the set. There are also numerous staging choices that make Birdie the focal point, rather than Regina, such as when the three siblings sitting down fantasizing about their potential new wealth while Birdie runs around behind them. All in all, one is left wondering at the close of the act which character the work is actually about. Thankfully, Blitzstein uses the following two acts to refocuses on Regina.
The second act allows for the introduction of two welcomed additions to the work: Regina’s sick husband Horace, played by bass Daren Jackson, and the chorus in the party scene. Mr. Jackson is unquestionably the star of the final two acts. He commands attention not only due to his stage presence and acting ability but also his absolutely astounding voice. The production greatly benefits from his talent. The chorus of the party guests in the second act is quite amusing, bemoaning how Regina’s family has ruined their lives, gossiping about their fellow partiers, all the while offering theirs hosts the praise that the Southern etiquette requires.
Other roles of notes include Ben and Oscar Hubbard, performed convincingly by the baritones Mark Wanich and Anthony Eversole, respectively. They play off each other well, leaving the audience in no doubt that they are siblings. This is highlighted in the first-act number “Big Rich.” Chelsea Davidson as Zan is a delight to listen to, though unfortunately her strong talent is perhaps a bit wasted on the clichÈ, uninteresting role and the music Blitzstein wrote for her character. Matthew Hill, double casted on alternative days as Mr. Marshall and Leo, makes all that he can of both roles. His clear, strident tenor voice is used perfectly to portray the flashy, but empty-minded Leo.
The Maryland Opera Studio has made Blitzstein’s work Regina enjoyable to watch, despite its somewhat unavoidable issues. The cast includes many gifted voices, which is reason enough to go see it. The company should also be commended for choosing to produce a lesser-known work, although I am not convinced that Regina should be placed in the canon of American opera. That being said, the production was a satisfying one and should be considered an accomplishment by the Maryland Opera Studio. Regina runs through Saturday April 16th.
product_title=Marc Blitzstein’s Regina at the University of Maryland
product_by=Five reviews by students at the University of Maryland
product_id=Above: Louisa Waycott as Regina, James Smidt as John Bagtree [all photos copyright Ashley Polland, courtesy of the University of Maryland]