Tasty Tidbits: Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s “Opera in Eight Parts”

Screenshot from "Opera in Eight Parts."

The Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s newest venture, which will undoubtedly please their loyal patron base, is “Opera in Eight Parts,” a sort of hybrid recital/tasting menu which introduces the major points of opera’s development from the 16th into the 21st century.

As the pandemic and social isolation have dragged on, three things are apparent. We are starved for artistic connection, the community must rally to sustain artists we hold dear, and the shaky camera phone footage that was sufficient in April is no longer palatable when creating monetizable content.

Organizations of all ilks have had to scrap their carefully developed programming and devise new ways to reach and service audiences, while trying to secure funding and maintain existence. Lyric Opera of Kansas City created “New Visions” for this season, including their outdoor series “Soundscapes in the City,” a family-friendly puppet opera coming in December, and this latest foray, “Opera in Eight Parts.”

The first four episodes of “Opera in Eight Parts” were released on Monday. The Lyric Opera partnered with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, AWStudios, and three area music historians, creating a textured entre into the somewhat daunting world of opera.

They’ve carved down the history of the art form into two hours; eight episodes of 15 minutes each, packaged in two parts. That is an impressive feat, as most operas take longer than two hours to perform.

We are introduced to opera’s nascent form with enthusiastic, expert guidance from musicologist Dr. Alison DeSimone, professor at the UMKC Conservatory, as she describes the setting in the late 16th century in the cultural center of Florence, Italy.

Filmed in the European Gallery of the Nelson-Atkins, the rich hues of a Caravaggio painting loom over her shoulder. Throughout the presentation, complementary art works, curated from the Nelson-Atkins collection, are interspersed with the performances to illuminate the themes of the music. As that device progressed, though, it became less effective, especially when the images veered from the time period.

The vocal selections were all filmed in the Michael & Ginger Frost Production Arts Building, performed by local artists, many current or former participants in LOKC’s Artist Development Programs.

Two selections from Claudio Monteverdi demonstrate opera’s earliest form, with an impassioned, prayful performance from Grammy Award-winning baritone Daniel Belcher and a rich tone from mezzo-soprano Kelly Morel.

Piotr Wisniewski, LOKC’s Head of Music Staff and Chorus Master, performs (masked) on piano with each vocalist, demonstrating a generous ability and flexibility in style. In my heart, I wished that the earlier selections were accompanied on an instrument more appropriate to the period (since pianos weren’t invented until later), as that would have further strengthened the flavors of the changing styles, but, as with many things during our current situation, sometimes we just make do.

The “episode” structure is somewhat stilted when watched back-to-back, but the structure appreciates that not everyone will have the capacity or desire to consume hours of screen content.

For the Baroque era in Episode 2, bass Scott Conner and Morel demonstrated the virtuosic and colorful Baroque lines, with DeSimone providing commentary.

The only prominent misstep in the production was the winking explanation of the development of the castrati voice, glossed over for the modern audience.

Dr. Martin Nedbal, from the University of Kansas, led the discussion of opera of the Classical era during Episode 3, describing the rise of vernacular and humorous opera. They also demonstrated how modern artists perform works originally written for castrati, with Morel and Belcher each giving a rendition of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s “Che faro senza Eurydice?”, both convincing portrayals of loss.

To counter, we hear the sweet and endearing “Pa- Pa- Pa- Papageno,” from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” sung in English by Belcher and soprano Kaylie Kahlich. They performed in concert style, facing front. During these times, it’s risky to sing/expectorate and it further helped appreciate the performance by seeing that they were safely creating space between them, but still connecting their musical lines.

Of anyone on screen, UMKC’s Dr. William Everett seemed to be having the most fun, as he described 19th century Italian opera in Episode 4. His joy in bringing these works and composers to a modern audience is a lesson in storytelling, by sharing that perfect, particular nugget of period information that situates a piece, humanizes it, and creates relevancy.

Furthering the connection of story and song, Conner serves up a conniving plot from Gioachino Rossini’s “Il barbiere di Siviglia” while tenor Michael Wu performs a wistful aria from Gaetano Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’amore.”

Of course, none of these performances could be shared without the storytelling skills of the team from AWStudios, which created a sumptuous looking film, directed by Austin Walsh. It is beautifully lit, though I found the constantly moving camera during the musical numbers and frequent lens flares distracting. The audio for the music, however, is steady and well-balanced throughout.

The second package, Episodes 5-8, is scheduled for release approximately October 28 (there was a delay of a few days with the first package), covering the 19th and 20th centuries. These episodes bring in bass-baritone Keith Klein, soprano Vanessa Thomas, and soprano Kelli Van Meter.

Reviewed Thursday October 22, 2020. “Opera in Eight Parts” is available until December 31, 2020 at kcopera.org. Each package is $20.  

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

Leave a Reply