If you want proof that the the borders of classical music just keep getting more porous, you need look no further than Three Lost Chords, a one-hour show that has been playing at the offbeat little Zipper Theater on Wednesdays and Sundays since March 23. The Zipper is a tiny space in the garment district big enough for perhaps 75 audience members, who sit in vinyl two-seaters from 1950s-era buses; adjacent to the theater there’s also the funky Zipper Tavern with twinkly lights and shabby-chic furniture like slip-covered loveseats and wooden chests. Not your ordinary opera venue.
This macabre/funny/over-the-top trio of short monologue operas with music by Lance Horne and libretto by Mark Stephen Campbell, directed by David Schweizer, had a run at the Zipper in January and is now back for a brief reprise. The composer—who also plays piano in this one-hour show—studied with Milton Babbitt and David Del Tredici at Juilliard, and he cites some of his influences John Lennon, David Bowie, Fiona Apple, Benjamin Britten, and the Captain & Tennille (!). He also has a band, Lance Horne and the One-Night Stands .
The three singers in the show each portray a character based on short stories: Franz Kafka’s A Hunger Artist (about the predicament of a man who hates food), Muriel Spark’s The Girl I Left Behind (about a young woman struggling with a strange kind of memory loss), and Edgar Allan Poe’s well-known A Tell-Tale Heart. Nathan Lee Graham, with a resume that is a mix of television and movie roles, Broadway, and classical, portrays Kafka’s hunger artist, while Michael Slattery (Poe’s guilt-plagued murderer) and Caroline Worra (the woman trying to remember what she is missing) are both well established in the classical universe.
I’d somehow managed to miss Worra when she sang Jenny in Bennett’s The Mines of Sulphur at New York City Opera in 2005, for which she got excellent reviews, and was glad of an opportunity to hear this singer that has had New Yorker critic Alex Ross calling her a “new soprano powerhouse.” Worra is intriguing indeed—she has a big voice of exceptional beauty that has sharp edges and is also capable of precise coloratura, and she has a voracious appetite for new music. She sings everything from Handel’s Semele to Mozart’s Donna Elvira to music by composers such as Stephen Hartke, Philip Glass, and Richard Rodney Bennett; one the upcoming performances she’s most excited about is the Composers & the Voice Workshop Series, presented next month in New York by American Opera Projects. This fall she takes on a world-premiere opera, Blizzard Voices, at Opera Omaha, and reprises her role as Jenny in Bennett’s The Mines of Sulphur at Ireland’s Wexford Opera.
When I spoke to Worra for a few minutes after her Sunday performance in Three Lost Chords, she explained how it is she has come to sing so much new music. “I’m a fast learner,” was her understated response. Uh, it turns out she learned the lead role, Boule de Suif, in Hartke’s The Greater Good in exactly one week when she sang that at Glimmerglass Opera in 2006. She says it helps speed up the learning process that she started off as a piano major before switching her main focus to voice; she still has a piano teaching studio of 35 students. Right now, she’s excited about her first Metropolitan Opera engagement: understudying the role of Mrs. Naidoo in Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha, a highly anticipated co-production with English National Opera, scheduled to have its Met premiere on April 11. This is not Worra’s first Glass opera; she sang in his Orphée last summer at Glimmerglass. As she describes it, “In Satyagraha, there are a lot of instructions in the score like ‘repeat these two measures eight times’ or ‘sing this whole section twice.’ The wonderful acting troupe Improbable is constantly onstage with us, manipulating these giant puppets and crinkling paper and so forth. I play an ‘Indian lady’ who’s an adviser to Gandhi. There are no Met Titles at all! It’s in Sanskrit, and there will be just a few projections of text on the stage, so people have a general idea of what’s going on.”
Since Worra’s an understudy in Satyagraha, you’ll only hear her in that if someone else gets sick. This Wednesday, April 9, is your last chance to hear her in Three Lost Chords. Definitely worth a listen.
Photo of Caroline Worra in the short opera “The Girl I Left Behind” by Adrian Nina.