In Joshua Bornfield’s newest opera, Strong Like Bull, two warring parties compete for political power, and are confounded—through hijinks and trickery—by a third. It’s a classic plot, but Bornfield’s wit and keen sense of the absurd put this time-tested structure to work for a more bristling, ornamental humor–one that isn’t afraid to skewer the inanities of modern political life while poking fun at opera itself.
With a cast of five, a set composed of a couple of tables and a handful of props, and an instrumental ensemble of exactly one (pianist Younggun Kim), Bornfield’s premier lacked some of the sensory overload tactics so stereotypical of modern opera. But it, and the musicians of Baltimore’s The Figaro Project who performed the work, proved that good old-fashioned storytelling and musicianship is still the heart of good opera, for old and new audiences alike.
In fact, Bull’s pared-down staging will strike most audiences as closer to that of theater or classic film comedy. Bornfield, a doctoral candidate in composition at the Peabody Conservatory, says he penned the English libretto and the music with film and theater in mind, drawing influence from the likes of The Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Gogol, and Mozart. The plot, as Bornfield puts it, is based “very, very loosely” on an episode from revolution-era Russian history, 1917. But its characters are the same power-crazy, comically dumb, irreverent jerks that have haunted the annals of film and theater since time immemorial.
With one exception: Bornfield’s speeches sound suspiciously dumb in that way that only modern political discourse can be. And of course, the only thing more inane than the modern political catchphrase is such a catchphrase repeated, ad absurdum, by an opera singer.
Amidst the antics, Bornfield’s satire somehow manages to privilege the development of his characters and music, and it refuses to take sides in modern political debates. Bull’s aim is to poke fun at these divisive times of ours, not join them. “I wanted to bring a room full of people together and have them all leave laughing,” Bornfield said of the work. “I don’t find alienating people funny.” Bornfield’s music–honed and colorful, equally unafraid of experimental dissonance and Mozartian symmetry–drives his plot with an angular, but never distracting, edge. His approach to recitative is notably unique and poignant, even as it is humorous.
Strong Like Bull was sponsored by Baltimore’s The Figaro Project as part of its annual Opera Trio concert series. The Figaro Project is a self-funded opera collective, run on a “shoestring budget” by young singer Caitlin Vincent, to showcase local vocal and compositional talent in the absence of more well-endowed local patrons and music halls. Figaro Project singers Nathan Wyatt (Kerensky), Peter Drackley (Kornilov), Jessica Abel (Lvov), and Jessica Hanel Satava (Ekaterina), in collaboration with director William Schaller, proved that this small opera company has a keen sense of comic timing, in addition to world-class musicianship.
It is do-it-yourself organizations like The Figaro Project that, Bornfield says, sustain Baltimore’s flourishing creative community. “The best thing about [The Figaro Project’s Opera Trio festival] is that it is totally D.I.Y, in the same way that most of the other music scenes here are. This is not a wealthy community, but it’s a community full of incredible passion. It’s finding new ways to fund the arts.”
Strong Like Bull is slated for a second, larger performance in summer, 2012, in Baltimore, Md.. Check details on this and on Joshua Bornfield’s other works at his Facebook page.
The Figaro Project’s upcoming concerts can be viewed at http://www.thefigaroproject.com.
Karlyn DeSteno is a writer and artist living in Baltimore, Md.