On a beautiful June evening earlier this week, Symphony Space was home to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a world premiere opera by the American composer John Eaton. A good-sized crowd had gathered outside the entrance just before curtain, some of whom were perhaps wanted to see an opera version of the F. Scott Fitzgerald story whose 2008 movie adaptation starred Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. The opera, with a libretto by Estela Eaton, the composer’s daughter, is a short two-acter that presents Fitzgerald’s age-reversal story about a man born in 1860 as a 70-year-old, who gets progressively younger as time goes on.
The opera, presented by the Center for Contemporary Opera, featured the Pocket Opera Players, a small troupe Eaton (born 1935) formed in 1991 that includes several instrumentalists who do double duty as actors and singers. (Several singers took on multiple roles as well.) Eaton’s opera was what I’d describe as uncompromisingly modern—lots of microtones, huge leaps up and down tough intervals like minor ninths, no traditional melodies-with-harmony. If you don’t know what microtones are, just think: all the in-between pitches that fall somewhere between the white and black keys on the piano. Eaton, whose best-known operas are Myshkin, The Cry of Clytemnestra, and The Tempest, is what I’d call an old-school downtown-ish composer—none of this new-wave Classical Redux stuff for him. This is the type of opera where the audience must Pay Attention and not expect to be Entertained—at least not in the Aida or La Bohème way.
I did pay attention. Some of the opera was in fact entertaining. Act I consisted of five scenes that covered birth, childhood, application to Yale, meeting his wife, and the war: the very old newborn, an elderly kindergartener and middle-aged college student, and beyond. The music, from the nurse’s shrieks at the scene of Benjamin’s birth to the severe, unsmiling registrar at Yale (both wonderfully played by mezzo Jennifer Roderer), doesn’t try to be “pretty,” and it often suits the funny but dark story well. Baritone Chris Pedro Trakas played the old (young) Benjamin in Act I; in Act II Benjamin, now getting younger and younger, was sung by baritone Dominic Inferrara. The second act—which tracks Benjamin’s progress from Harvard to re-enlistment, return to kindergarten, and finally darkness—was stronger than the first. Inferrara, a strong singer with good stage presence, had an easier time portraying the juvenile Benjamin than Trakas did playing the old Benjamin, but Trakas’s is the harder assignment, which requires a greater suspension-of-disbelief. With what appeared to be a very small budget, the production’s costumes mostly consisted of papery cutouts pinned to the singers’ torsos, and props such as cups likewise were colored cardboard rather than actual ceramics.
The composer commented in the program notes that he wanted to delve into the story’s “emotional core” without “a Hollywood-ish reference to the music of the time or place represented in the story used as a basis of the libretto.” The music was not the sort that you go home humming, but it definitely made me want to dip into the Fitzgerald story.
Top image: Baritone Chris Pedro Trakas as Benjamin getting dressed with nurse (Jennifer Roderer) and father (Tony Boutté). Bottom image: Baritone Dominic Inferrara as young (old) Benjamin in large chair. Photos by Richard Marshall.