Puppy episode

Tenor Justin Berkowitz (left) as Gil in "The Puppy Episode."

Chicago Opera Theater has now streamed the second new opera written as part of its Vanguard Emerging Opera Composer Residency, a commissioning and mentoring program for composers. The first opera was “The Transformation of Jane Doe” by composer Stacy Garrop and librettist Jerre Dye, a haunting, human ghost story that cleverly makes Chicago itself an integral character.

“The Puppy Episode” by composer Matthew Recio and librettist Royce Vavrek is an 80-minute, one-act opera set at the end of the last century. It centers on gay characters searching for the right way and the right time to come out. There are three different stories within the opera: Gil is a teenager who loves Clay, “the boy who lives at the end of the cul-de-sac”; Louise is frustrated and unhappy in her 15-year marriage to Joe and has begun meeting women secretly; and Phyllis, a widow and grandmother suffering from dementia, constantly dips back into her youthful past remembering Dot, a woman she loved many long years ago.

What Vavrek has done with the libretto is very clever indeed, linking these stories from three generations. Phyllis is Gil’s grandmother, and Louise works as a caregiver to Phyllis. All their stories are connected to each other as well as one historic event: “The Puppy Episode” from the 1990s sitcom starring Ellen DeGeneres. This particular episode from “Ellen” was given the innocuous title to try and keep secret until airing that, in the episode, Ellen’s character would come out. In true Ellen fashion, it doesn’t go according to plan, and the episode sees Ellen end up inadvertently saying that she is gay directly into a microphone. Yet in reality the microphone was part of the plot: Ellen the character and Ellen the actor were both speaking loud and clear.

And so on April 30, 1997, Gil wants to watch the sitcom everyone is talking about. He’s told his grandmother about it already and wants her to watch as well. And bracketing the action of these characters, the opera has one character, The Comedian, who comments on her own situation.

Recio has written an engaging score, which includes some ravishingly beautiful music. I had read that Recio was particularly inspired by composers Ravel, Debussy, and Britten and found that combination fascinating yet hard to fathom in an amalgam. Hearing is believing. Recio has the lush beauty of Debussy, the deft orchestration of Ravel, and the muscular power of Britten, all with his own contemporary fingerprints.

Recio’s greatest strength in this opera is his shimmering warmth, his gentleness, his ability to express aspiration tinged with anxiety and uncertainty. He has created a beautiful score.

Teenager Gil is sung with conviction and just the right amount of disquiet and confusion by tenor Justin Berkowitz. Gil’s an ordinary teenager who fights with his dad, but one fight troubles him considerably: his father doesn’t want him to watch the episode, but Gil is mesmerized by television and cinema and believes his future joy will include being able to have enough VHS tapes to record any show he wants without having to record over previous material. Vavrek makes clear through this little story that coming out means you don’t have to re-record yourself until you get it right by other folks’ reckoning.

Baritone Evan Bravos sings the role of Clay, Gil’s friend from school who has become more than a friend to Gil. He’s more buttoned-down than Gil, more cautious about social standing, yet he too has yearnings. Recio and Vavrek have given opera two endearing characters who are looking for love but don’t yet have the words to express that love. It is a potent, touching, and moving element of “The Puppy Episode.”

Soprano Laura Wilde is splendid as grandmother Phyllis. She cannot remember many of the people around her, and even mistakes Gil for her late husband Gilbert. Yet she seems lucid, even luminous, when she remembers Dot, the woman she met in typing class when they were both very young. Dot is alluring to her, beautiful, and has been remembered even when so many other memories have been lost. Wilde delivers a strong Phyllis, a woman whose life seems well worth remembering.

Mezzo-soprano Morgan Middleton presents a hesitant, damaged Louise. She knows her husband loves her, but she cannot return his love and begins a relationship online with a woman using the screen name Tanya Trucker. Middleton offers a heartbreaking rendition of a woman who has been beaten down by life because she has not been able to live as her authentic self.

Bass-baritone Keanon Kyles plays the double role of Joe and Gil’s father. As the father, he’s gruff and imperious and demands that his son not watch the TV show. As Joe, he explodes in anger when his wife Louise tells him she is gay. This storyline is the most unsettling, as Louise seems so fragile after realizing that she can no longer live a lie.

American soprano Alexandra LoBianco is the Comedian. I don’t know why Recio and Vavrek don’t actually call this character Ellen DeGeneres because that’s who she clearly is. In his notes to the opera, Recio writes, “I was struck by the notice used before her episode: ‘Parental discretion is advised.’ We might now consider that an archaic warning, dehumanizing an individual’s heartfelt personal narrative.” Yet this statement might make you wonder why Ellen appears in this opera in every way but name. It’s impossible to believe Recio and Vavrek mean to unperson Ellen, so it’s genuinely puzzling that they name her when talking about the opera but she remains unnamed within the opera.

This offers something of a problem for LoBianco. Does she treat this character as an archetype and give the character her own interpretation or does she try and be Ellen? LoBianco opts for the latter, and stumbles. One of the hallmarks of Ellen’s comedy is that she is awkward yet sweet. LoBianco only captures the painful awkwardness, and none of the endearing sweetness. Nonetheless, she sings with confidence and an attractive darkness and the Comedian’s text serves as an important reminder of what was happening in 1997.

Kendrick Armstrong conducts a chamber orchestra with vim and splendor. With only two violins, viola, cello, flutes, clarinets, piano, and percussion, Recio creates a remarkably varied soundscape that Armstrong ensures always sounds sparkling and fresh.

Visually, this event was far less satisfying than the music. This is primarily due to the fact that it was a concert presentation. And this seems a tremendous disappointment, as it was with the concert presentation of “Jane Doe”. Both of these are exciting new operas and it is such a shame that COT gets so close to the finish line, yet stops short of a full opera presentation. The price COT must pay for its success is the disappointment of local opera lovers who would dearly love to see these exciting new operas given the full productions they deserve.

The camerawork for the staged concert was workmanlike, with a narrow selection of angles and far too many wide shots of the dark stage. The lighting was dim, sometimes dingy. The appearance of the singers was a little confusing. Were they wearing their own choice of concert dress? If so, why was Berkowitz (as young Gil) dressed like a middle-aged English teacher, with a shabby sweater? Obviously he isn’t actually a teenager, but why is he dressed to make him look older rather than younger than he is? He sang in the spot next to Wilde, as grandmother Phyllis, but at times Berkowitz looked even older than the person meant to play his grandmother. The occasional shots from the pit were always identical and only showed the top of the conductor’s head and two players.

This opera gives you much to think about, and one section that stuck with me is near the end when Phyllis is trying to remember her past. She is with caregiver Louise who in Phyllis’s mind has become Dot. Phyllis and Dot have a conversation, where Dot tells Phyllis various things Phyllis has forgotten. How can this be? It’s a little impossibility that becomes part of the dreamlike, unknowable world of Phyllis and adds to the charm of the story.

“The Puppy Episode” is an opera of hope, promise, and love. It offers a heartfelt look at coming out and beginning a new and exciting chapter of life. I strongly recommend it.

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