Hot topics, tepid opera

Michael Kelly (Abraham Fleischman) and Cassandra Zoé Velasco (Linda Morales) in Hometown to the World. Photo by Tira Howard for the Santa Fe Opera

Dec. 17, Lensic Performing Arts Center

Hometown to the World, the second installment in the Santa Fe Opera’s Opera for All Voices initiative, had its local premiere at the Lensic Performing Arts Center with performances on Dec. 17 and 19. The 70-minute piece, about the aftermath of the infamous 2008 Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid at a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, was well intentioned, handsomely produced, skillfully performed, and dramatically inert.

Its creators, librettist Kimberly Reed and composer Laura Kaminsky, envisioned their opera as a call to action focused on big contemporary issues, but Hometown to the World needs more musical power and dramatic ferocity to achieve the intended result, especially given the modest performing forces (three or four soloists and a chamber orchestra of six to eight players) mandated by the Opera for All Voices project design.

The subject provides plenty of issues that cry out for action, including our dysfunctional immigration system, public policy decisions that prioritized punitive enforcement actions over systematic reforms, and the country’s seemingly insatiable demand for cheap meat, which leads to the exploitation of low-paid workers. They’re all touched on in Reed’s text, but only briefly and gingerly.

Each of the three characters in the piece represents one of the town’s main population groups. Linda Larsen, the county agricultural commissioner, represents the area’s longtime Scandinavian farmers; recent immigrant Linda Morales, the Guatemalan Catholics who were the slaughterhouse’s primary workforce; and Abraham Fleischman, the Hasidic Jewish owners and operators of the plant.

In an interview, Kaminsky stressed that they should be viewed metaphorically as representatives of larger groups, and not the real-life subjects of a documentary opera, but in fact most of what the libretto contains falls into the realm of individual feelings, personal relationships, and kitchen-sink drama.

It never feels like the indictment of a system, or systems, and the opera’s theme ends up being little more than “Can we all just get along?” — the famous plea by Rodney King during the 1992 Los Angeles riots that resulted in his brutal treatment by the police. The call to action in Hometown to the World is both cosmic and vague, as each character vows “to repair the world,” with no indication of what that actually entails, other than praying, lighting candles together (attendees were provided with little electric candles, adding to the kumbaya effect), and sitting down to eat pie in Morales’ kitchen at the opera’s conclusion.

There were several missed opportunities for more incisive, bigger-scale drama. To cite one example, the societal implications of cheap meat would make for a terrific confrontation scene between Morales and the two American consumers and enablers of it, but instead her “Cheap Meat” aria swerved almost immediately into a standard-issue lament for her missing family. Unfortunately, Kaminsky’s score didn’t do much to redeem the opera’s dramaturgical problems, dominated as it is by unexceptional arioso vocal writing.

The musical performance and production values were high. Kristine McIntyre’s stage direction and Luke Cantarella’s scenic and projection designs were clean, focused, and effective. Mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert and baritone Michael Kelly offered nuanced portrayals of Larsen and Fleischman, respectively. Cassandra Zoé Velasco’s Morales wasn’t at quite the same level of sophistication, but she and Kelly were able to generate some much-needed dramatic heat in a scene where they accuse each other of being “the illegals.”

The eight-person orchestra played well for conductor Carmen Flórez-Mansi. (Its members included Felix Fan, cellist of the internationally known FLUX Quartet.) The 12-member children’s chorus was effective when singing in unison but was challenged by the difficult multi-part vocal writing in their music.

Both performances were well attended. Kudos to the opera for providing complimentary tickets for some students and community members, since the mid-December performance scheduling wouldn’t allow for school groups to attend.

Also in the Opera for All Voices pipeline: This Little Light of Mine, about the life of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, is scheduled for production October 2022, and The Pigeon Keeper, a parable about mass migration in times of hardship, in October 2023.

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