“Girl in Six Beats”
Portland High School Auditorium
April 30, 2018
by Christopher Hyde
The short opera, “Girl in Six Beats,” which was given a special performance for students at Portland High School on Monday, is a new take on an age-old story: the descent into Hades. Indeed, it goes even further back, with a shaman entering the spirit world to bring back advice to the tribe.
A project of OperaMaine, the libretto was written by high school students Emelia Bailey, Ella Briman, Makena Deveraux, Myah Garrison, Emily Greene, Zoe Sliwinski and Kaspar Wilder during a five-day workshop at “The Telling Room” in Portland.
The libretto was then turned over to Daniel Sonenberg, of “The Summer King” fame, to compose an operatic score. He used all of the students’ writing verbatim, except for some minor cuts.
The story begins with a monolog by the girl’s mother, sung by Christie Paul, in which she regrets not paying enough attention to her own daughter, while working,ironically, with disturbed children.
The girl, sung by Rachel Shukan, finds herself, after a suicide attempt, in a limbo peopled by Oblivion, Nicole Ponti, Reincarnation, Miles Obrey, and Slushie Guy, David Myers. Slushy is dressed in aging hippie style and caries a large blue cup with an oversize straw, with which he makes occasional nasty noises.
While Obie and Ray argue about the disposition of the girl’s soul, Slushie steals the show with a humorous depiction of his wasted life —“a million mistakes”— and how he came to be in limbo perpetuo by choosing not to choose. That implants in the girl the idea of of making up her own mind, and she decides to reconcile with her mother, awakening in a fine duet with the latter at a hospital bedside.
Sonenberg’s music fits the tale quite well, although much of it is necessarily recitative. He is best in duets between Obie and Ray, and mother and daughter, with carefully constructed sequences of intervals, some dissonant and some not, but all flowing forward.. He claims to have received his inspiration primarily from the teenaged authors, but also from “Twin Peaks.” The final aria sounds more like Orpheus charming the underworld.
The opera is scored for piano, played by music director Scott Wheatley, and a chorus of three men and three women, who also play small percussion instruments, effective in creating the appropriate atmosphere.
The production was directed by Ellen Chickering, with stage management by Keeghan Perry.
The high-school audience seemed to like the opera, which may become a hit because of is relevance to the problem of teen-age suicide. In a question and answer session after the performance, the authors seemed to disagree about whether the libretto was indeed about that subject or what is nowadays called lack of communication. The treasure the girl brings back from the underworld is her own voice, as an equal of her mothers’.
Some take-homes for the authors (which they probably know already): Characters take on a life of their own. The need for an “objective correlative,” such as Slushies’ king-size container and straw. Address large themes, such as death and transfiguration, through small details. (See “Waiting for Godot.”) Keep it simple; the audience has to understand sung words, a very difficult task without supertitles. A camel is a horse designed by a committee, but in this case a collaborative exercise paid off.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.