Sweet Potato Kicks the Sun had its world premiere at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Saturday, Oct. 26, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera. It’s the first salvo in Opera for All Voices, a multi-company initiative to create new works that will appeal to broader audiences, demonstrate social impact, and involve a diverse group of creators.
This new opera has a lot of positive aspects and enjoyable attributes — a dynamic score by a highly acclaimed composer, a high-energy cast that included a beatboxer (almost certainly a first in opera), an inventive production, and a storyline that touches on several important themes. They don’t yet add up to the cumulative impact they could and should have, due to some storytelling problems. Happily, most of those can easily be addressed before future productions.
Here’s what happens in Sweet Potato: The Special Guest Artist begins a beatbox performance which is quickly interrupted by preparations for an opera. In it, the wild child Sweet Potato (who is neither male nor female) kicks the sun out of the galaxy, endangering all the plants and animals on the rooftop garden tended by Grandfather Beekeeper and Grandmother Seed-keeper. Sweet Potato and a hummingbird friend named 89 undertake a quest to the top of City Park Mountain and the depths of a Glass Jar Factory. After some initial skepticism, the Guest Artist joins their journey, during which Sweet Potato learns important lessons and the cosmos is finally repaired.
Composer Augusta Read Thomas has created a score with lightning mood changes and highly varied instrumental sonorities. (Stravinsky’s groundbreaking music for a similarly sized orchestra in The Soldier’s Tale came to mind on several occasions.) The seven-member orchestra, consisting of violin, cello, flute, clarinet, piano, two very busy percussionists, and music director/chorus master Carmen Flórez-Mansi, were seated on one side of the stage, rather than in the orchestra pit.
This provided opportunities for a few comic moments between the cast, conductor, and players, but it created balance issues during which the singers were difficult to hear or understand above the orchestra. Floor mics across the edge of the stage created some audible “hot spots” and were only a partial solution.
Thomas’ setting of Leslie Dunton-Downer’s libretto also didn’t aid in understanding as much as it could have, with vocal lines that tended not to follow speech inflections and rhythms. Significant portions of the text are also improvised by the cast, in between fixed starting and ending points, which could be a contributing factor.
Stage director John de los Santos and his design team (Liliana Duque Piñeiro, scenery; Ashley Soliman, costumes; and Noele Stollmack, lighting) created an ingenious, flexible, and generally attractive environment that’s sometimes a little too visually busy for its own good.
The result of it all was that several important narrative points were confusing or missed, leaving too many questions in their wake. What was the significance of the “Cosmic Cord?” Why does Grandmother Seed-keeper hang around in the bowels of the Glass Jar Factory? What’s the relationship between Sweet Potato and Grandfather Beekeeper? They don’t interact much at the beginning, so when Sweet Potato finds out near the end that Grandfather has died, her sorrow doesn’t have the impact it should.
At a running time of about 80 minutes, Sweet Potato felt about 15 or 20 minutes too long. Despite all the onstage activity and energetic orchestration, there are dramatically inert stretches that could be shortened significantly. There’s a long scene, for instance, during which the hungry Sweet Potato wins a grocery cart full of junk food in a singing competition with its owners. The Guest Artist insists that the competition be held again, but, after several minutes, the outcome is the same, so there’s no real point to its repetition.
Amy Owens, a former Santa Fe Opera apprentice, offered a totally convincing portrayal of Sweet Potato, notable for her loose-limbed physicality and ability to range through a variety of emotions. She’s a light-voiced soubrette soprano whose coloratura flights made total sense as part of her trickster character.
As The Special Guest artist, Nicole Paris had several audience-pleasing opportunities to demonstrate her phenomenal beatboxing skills and sang confidently in her debut as a theatrical performer. (Paris spent more than two years developing her part in conjunction with the composer.)
Baritone Dominik Belavy sang well as the hummingbird friend, 89, and executed his sometimes stylized movements with fluidity. He also developed a believable rapport with Owens, seeming like nearly as much of a mischief maker as Sweet Potato is until tasked with keeping the latter in line during their quest.
Former SFO apprentice Briana Elyse Hunter delivered a sharply characterized portrayal as City Dweller #1; her enormous hats, baggy costumes, and lack of much physical or vocal differentiation didn’t provide enough contrast between her Grandfather and her Grandmother.
The Albuquerque-based actor Dawn Lura got to demonstrate her versatility as a wide range of animals and human beings. The 15-member children’s chorus sang well and performed charmingly as the rooftop garden’s birds and bees.
Seven regional opera companies make up the Opera for All Voices consortium. Representatives from the Minnesota Opera and San Francisco Opera attended the performance; the other backers are Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Sarasota Opera, and Seattle Opera. The member companies have the opportunity, but not the obligation, to stage the four new works that will be developed during the project.
The Santa Fe Opera will revive Sweet Potato Kicks the Sun in 2020 for its annual spring tour. In prior years, the tour has included stops in such smaller locales as Tucumcari, Farmington, Roswell, and Truth or Consequences, among others. This time the larger-scale, technically sophisticated production will be staged only in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and El Paso. It’s understandable that the opera would want to maximize its investment in the production; it’s just unfortunate that it means serving the area’s largest and culturally richest cities without the other stops.