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Opera Parallèle presents a North American premiere with uncompromising impact

Natalia (Catherine Cook, right) lures Anya (Anna Noggle, left) into sex slavery
Natalia (Catherine Cook, right) lures Anya (Anna Noggle, left) into sex slavery
by Steve DiBartolomeo, courtesy of Opera Parallèle

Last night at the Marines’ Memorial Theater, Opera Parallel began their weekend run of the first North American performances of Adam Gorb’s opera Anya17. Ben Kaye described his libretto as “an amalgam of just some of the horrific, real stories from the world of sex trafficking which I discovered during my research with leading charities and caseworkers in the field.” One might say that the result is a musical dramatization of ethnography, much the same way that Charles S. Dutton’s miniseries for HBO The Corner was a dramatization of The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, an ingeniously conceived synthesis of ethnography and journalism by David Simon and Ed Burns.

The most important thing to note about Anya17 is that it is not easy to take. Those looking for little more than a pleasant night out at the opera would be advised to look elsewhere. This is an uncompromising treatment that thoroughly justifies Kaye’s use of the adjective “horrific.” At the same time the production forces us to recognize just how fine the line is between an uncompromising account of the horrific and a pornographic one. As the narrative unfolds as brutality after brutality, it would be hard for anyone in the audience to avoid questioning if (s)he has been reduced to a voyeur of atrocities.

It is clear, however, that Kaye wanted to get beyond mere voyeurism. Rather, his goal was to compel an otherwise passive audience to pay attention to basic realities that most would prefer to ignore. Anya17 thus follows in a literary tradition of books like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which forced dark truths about the treatment of slaves on readers who preferred to avoid such uncomfortable thoughts, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which approached the food processing industry the same way, and, closer to home, Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, which exposed the willful negligence from all levels of government at the onset of the AIDS epidemic. Each of those books thrusts the reader into making highly disturbing observations, without reducing him/her to the level of a perverted voyeur.

Thus, the more important questions concern how such an uncompromising narrative can be handled by both a musical setting and a staging of the performance as opera. For the former, Gorb chose to work with the resources of a chamber orchestra. The only extensive resource is the diversity of instruments played by the percussionist (Erika Johnson). The remaining parts also have single performers. These include a string quartet (violinists Roy Malan and Stephanie Bibbo, violist Ellen Ruth Rose, and cellist Adaiha Macadam-Somer), along with bass (Stan Poplin), a wind section of flute (Carmen Lemoine), oboe and English horn (Kyle Bruckmann), clarinet and bass clarinet (Peter Josheff), and bassoon and contrabassoon (David Granger), a brass section of horn (Alicia Telford), trumpet (John Freeman), and trombone (Hall Goff), and pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi.

Gorb has a keen ear for harnessing the intensity of dissonance to Kaye’s narrative. This involves some highly imaginative combinations of instruments, along with a few well-chosen and highly arresting outbursts from the entire ensemble, led deftly by Music Director Nicole Paiement. Only six vocalists were involved, each with a voice as intensely controlled as the instrumental parts. Anna Noggle sang the title role in a style that was both musically and dramatically convincing; but the same can be said of her two fellow sex slaves, Mila and the blind Elena, sung, respectively, by Shawnette Sulker and Laura Krumm. Victor Benedetti was not afraid to evoke all of the brutality of Viktor, the “keeper” of these three girls, while Andres Ramirez doubled as Uri, who first lures Anya into the “system” and Gabriel, the customer who falls in love with her. The real powerhouse, however, was Catherine Cook as Victor’s assistant Natalia, instrumental in managing all the “business basics” of this trade.

As in his past productions, Director Brian Staufenbiel made rich use of media. This included some highly imaginative use of projected images to substitute for extensive use of scenery and sets. However, what mattered most was the acting technique of each of the six singers. It was through that technique that Staufenbiel arrived at the fundamental dramatic elements that ultimately made this performance so unrelenting and uncompromising.

This was clearly the work of highly committed courage and focused attention to detail, without which the whole affair could have devolved into triviality (or, worse, pornography). Those considering attending one of the two remaining performances need to be aware of what is in store for them. Those who then take the plunge will emerge, possibly uncomfortably, with a deeper understanding of one of the uglier trends of our contemporary life.

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