Daniel Catán’s last opera, “Meet John Doe,” was his homage to America. So, from the first notes, one is thrust into the Swing Era, with hot drumming — Louis Prima style — and finger-snapping in the chorus. This is one jazzy newsroom.
On Saturday night, I heard the first reading of excerpts from Act I of Catán’s opera, based on the 1941 film that starred Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper.
Catán, who spent a long period in Cincinnati in 2008 during productions of his “Florencia en el Amazonas” and “Rappacini’s Daughter,” died tragically at age 62 in 2011, while he was in the middle of writing “Meet John Doe.” He had completed just 75 percent of the score. He also wrote the libretto, which is his first in English.
Catán’s widow, Andrea Puente Catán,, is serving as associate editor of the project to finish the opera. She and the team were all in Memorial Hall for this Opera Fusion: New Works performance. The collaboration between Cincinnati Opera and CCM’s opera department, headed by Robin Guarino, has resulted in the workshops for six new operas since it began three years ago, said co-artistic director Marcus Küchle of Cincinnati Opera.
Here are a few of my impressions — with the caveat that I did not attend any of the workshops during the past 11 days; nor did I have a score.
It follows the story of Ann Mitchell, a newspaper columnist whose fictional letter to the editor from “John Doe” — threatening suicide on Christmas Eve in protest of society’s ills — sparks a grassroots populist movement. Mitchell finds a homeless former baseball player to pose as the public face of John Doe.
Memorial Hall’s stage was filled with young singers from CCM, who put on an amazing performance of this all-new work — considering they, and we, barely knew it. Eduardo Diazmuñoz was conductor for the reading. Afterwards, he spoke to the audience about his work on the piece as a composer and chief editor, as well as his friendship of 36 years with Catán.
I loved the opening, with the “Sing, Sing, Sing”- style of drumming, terrifically played by Darren Benton, with Carol Walker jazzing it up at the piano. A wonderful young soprano named Nicolette Book played the substantial role of Ann Mitchell. The opera begins just as Mitchell is being fired by her editor (Joseph Lattanzi) because her column is “too lavender and lace.”
Mitchell is given a wonderful scene, first reading the letter and then, with her voice rising to impassioned heights, trying to convince her editor to develop a plan (and save her job).
Catán’s music was rich in atmosphere, tension and drama. But he also knew how to write for the voice. Later, as Mitchell coached her John Doe to “speak from the heart,” the beauty of her melodic line was quite moving. (And Book sang it with depth of feeling.) It reminded me of how Catán had a gift for finding the emotional core in his opera “Florencia.”
Later, Diazmuñoz said that Catán’s musical language “is very peculiar… The music pierces your heart, though its harmony, its rhythms, its dramatic pace.”
There was a wonderful male trio, with John Doe (Brandon Russell) and two pals — both real characters, but the “Colonel” (Cody Quattlebaum) was a standout. A press conference scene offered an opportunity for an Andrews Sisters-style number for female quintet. Not only did they sing, they had their choreography down pat.
Then there was John Doe, the wash-up ballplayer, now hobo, sung by Russell. He is given a moving soliloquy — a speech Mitchell has written for him — that speaks of all the John Does in history … summing it up with the words, “a free people can win at anything, but we can’t win without teamwork.”
It crescendoed into a musically and emotionally powerful moment when the chorus joined in with a lush, evocative “Awake John Doe.”
I think that moment moved a listener in the hall later to say he hoped the opera would be produced because “this opera has an incredibly important message for our time.”