If operas are rituals, Guerrilla Opera gives the rituals a good old-fashioned Boston tryout. Adam Roberts’s Giver of Light, given its first performance on May 23 at the Boston Conservatory’s Zack Box Theater, is the eighth opera the group has commissioned and premiered since 2008. The offerings—compact-sized repertoire, small casts, chamber-sized orchestration, intimate dimensions—are an interesting intersection of scrappy and polished: consistently excellent singing and playing in an atmosphere that often seems to emphasize little theater, “Let’s put on a show!” qualities. The group (led by percussionist Mike Williams and composer Rudolf Rojahn) is all about getting new operas into the world, conscientious productions with cheap tickets (and, as of recently—and of particular benefit to a reviewer who arrived late because of Red Sox traffic—streaming broadcasts over the internet). Guerrilla Opera’s own ritual is one of DIY empowerment. New opera? Just do it.
It was a nice parallel, then, that Giver of Light put ritual itself at its center, and, perhaps, that was the reason that the ritual was the most compelling part of the work. The opera presents a modern translation of the relationship between the Sufi scholar Rumi and Shams-i-Tabrīzī; Rumi’s meeting with Shams led to a short but intense relationship that inspired Rumi’s turn towards poetry and ascetic mysticism. In Roberts’s libretto, Rumi becomes John (Johan Budris), enrolled in the American Dream quadrivium of house, wife (Aliana de la Guardia), kid (Jennifer Ashe), and job; Shams becomes Darren (Brian Church), the new school bus driver, who becomes John’s unlikely/inevitable soulmate. (Whether or not the relationship has a sexual component is—much like Rumi’s own writings and the historical record—left vague, though the suspicion is explicitly mentioned.)
The setting was “the American Midwest”—and it was quite clearly not an actual American Midwest, be that Wichita or Chicago or any of the region’s other strikingly particular locales, but the great symbolic Midwest that has become one of the go-to stand-ins for suburban ennui. Roberts, whose biography traverses a host of American landmarks (Eastman, Harvard, Tanglewood) but who is currently based in Istanbul, is out to delete the story’s historical and geographic distance. “We are more ‘connected’ than ever before and perhaps more lonely,” Roberts writes about his opera. “I can only imagine that people today must relate to Rumi’s longing for intensity.”
Sure enough, Giver of Light was most compelling at its most intense, when Darren, and then Darren and John, meditate themselves into ecstasy. An undercurrent of electronics (realized by Anıl Çamcı and manned by Rojahn) opens out into a landscape of overtone singing, as clarinet (Amy Advocat), saxophone (Kent O’Doherty), cello (Javier Caballero), and percussion (Williams) pile their lines into appropriately dervish-like whirls. Gloriously weird and sonically rich, these scenes tapped into opera at its most transporting, when the liturgy leaves behind any justification of its unrealism and simply takes off into pure musical spectacle.
The rest was diverting, but, in an odd way, almost too schematic for its own good. The characters were all archetypes, as Roberts admitted, “general enough that we may see our own reflections in them,” he wrote, but his bright outlines weren’t quite fully filled in. Roberts’s division, musically and textually, between inner and outer life—Darren and John’s rapture vs. suspiciously uncomprehending family and society—was effectively drawn but not really bridged. Shifts from one world to the other, especially as the drama telescoped and scenes commenced at an immediately heightened pitch, were jarring. Part of the point, perhaps, but it had the effect of making the non-mystic characters seem more brittle and less sympathetic. One of opera’s great magic acts is its ability to have melodrama and ritual, the worldly and the sacred, provocatively intermingle; Giver of Light achieves something of that in its first half, but then amplifies the melodrama into opposition.
There was still a lot to like: Roberts’s busy, burbling music, his clarity with vocal writing, his flexibility in changing his text setting to match the drama (the way angry characters’ words break down into stuttering, fractured babbling, for instance). Andrew Eggert’s direction told the story with a minimum of fuss; Tláloc López-Watermann’s lighting was both splashy and evocative; Julia Noulin-Mérat’s set made efficient use of pop art tropes and a great, psychedelic reveal, Rumi’s texts in black light radiance. The quartet of singers was excellent: de la Guardia an energetic, dramatic clarion, Ashe bright and clear, Budris pouring out lyrical warmth, Church giving Darren an inviting but also unsettling resonance.
Mostly, I liked the piece’s sheer risk: Giver of Light takes chances, and if not all of them pay out, still, it’s a lot better than cautiously going through the motions. It’s the sort of piece that Guerrilla Opera is made for: original and a little bit speculative, in need of realization to hone in on its identity. Opera is hard: its pace, its tone, a libretto perched between dialogue and poetry, characters that read quickly but still have texture. Composers and, in a way, the works themselves learn by doing, in production and in performance. The path to operatic enlightenment is, in both the ritualistic and utilitarian senses, practice.