★★★ - Satisfying
Did you know 2019 was the 150th Anniversary of Major League Baseball -- dating back to the 1869 foundation of the Cincinnati Red Stockings – and the regular season ended just last Sunday, September 29th?
Luckily, just in time for the postseason, Opera Las Vegas (OLV) mounted a satisfying, three star presentation of Sasha Matson’s “Cooperstown - a Jazz Opera in Nine Innings” this past weekend for two performances at Windmill Library. This West Coast Premiere, and Living Composer Debut, opened the 20th Magical Season for OLV.
Cooperstown is a chamber opera in which baseball provides both the setting for the action and the metaphorical context for the various relationships and romances of the characters. Composer Matson has combined America’s pastime (with its rich history of almost mythical characters and dramatic moments) and jazz (a musical genre with its roots in America) in a showcase featuring five soloists and a jazz quintet with a 1950s influence. Matson, who actually lives in Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, introduced each of the nine scenes (“innings”) with a jazz interlude. (The composer was in attendance on opening night.)
The story revolves around Angel, the star pitcher for the Bluebloods, who has risen high above his impoverished roots in Santo Domingo. Throwing a shadow on his success are the misfortunes of a potentially fatal “secret” physical defect, and the fact that he has fallen in love above his station, with the Upper East Side fan, Lilly. Complicating their romance is the nefarious meddling of the catcher, Marvin, who resents Angel's inequitable luck. He conspires with an unscrupulous female sports agent, Jan, to undermine Angel's happiness. “Dutch” the irascible team manager struggles to keep everyone in line in order to focus on winning games – and longs for the old days as he prays for “a touch of grace from Cooperstown” -- as they all strive against substantial odds in the games of love and baseball.
The talented vocalists are to be celebrated here. Athena Mertes (soprano) is the alluring love interest Lilly, an Upper East Side girl who captures the star pitcher Angel's heart, and then threatens to break it. Lisa Elliot (coloratura soprano) is the sports players' agent, Jan -- a woman whose scruples and libido change the course of the drama. Alex Rodin Mendoza (tenor) portrays the star pitcher, Angel Corazon, who has risen above his humble roots to achieve stardom, but harbors a tragic secret. Alec Carlson (tenor) is the malcontent catcher, Marvin, who wants to thwart the pitcher in his quest for a berth in the World Series. Travis Lewis (bass-baritone) is ‘Dutch’ Schulhaus, the irascible team manager who struggles to keep his baseball players on track in love and sport.
The distinctive tones, performance techniques, and syncopated rhythms of the gifted jazz quintet seamlessly transported us from the bleachers, to the backstop, to the bar! The musicians were ever-present “in the stands”, wearing their baseball caps: Conductor/Music Director, Tim Warren; Pianist, Bennett Mason; Trumpet, Jorge Machain; Saxophone, Charles McNeal; Bass, John Belzaguy; Drums, Angelo Stokes.
The design elements were modest: stage scenery (by Daz Weller) remained stationary, while the changing of upstage projections transformed the playing area from the field, to the dugout, to the bar; costumes (by Rose Magee) were appropriate contemporary sports and business casual attire.
Co-Directors Bonita Bunt and Daz Weller put together a great company to support and implement their vision. However, the blocking was often stiff and unnatural, thereby interrupting the underlying pulse (the jazz beat) of the production.
As a jazz lover, I realize that the history of jazz is peppered with "jazzed up" versions of classical compositions. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is where the history books tell us that the culture of jazz/classical crossover began. But “Jazz Opera”?
My research led me to the New York Jazz Workshop, which manages a rich and ever-expanding blog about jazz music, which includes numerous podcasts and interviews with the who’s who of jazz music.
What makes Jazz different from other music?
“Jazz is a purely American invention… Every style of Jazz is played all around the world today, and two qualities that make it truly distinctive are improvisation, and attention to staying in the present. Additionally, Jazz music while absorbing influences from many genres, maintains its identity as Jazz.”
The enjoyable instrumental interlude music was definitely jazz, tight and highly creative -- melancholy, bluesy, and textured. However the transitions to the vocal passages, with a libretto in conversational English sprinkled with professional sports jargon, pressed the operatic elements to the impairment of the jazz. While the soloists were uniformly excellent, the lyrics often failed to fall “trippingly on the tongue”.
So I have to agree with Daniel Coombs’ impression as expressed in Audiophile Audition, Oct 7, 2015:
“First, and to be clear, to call Sasha Matson’s Cooperstown a “jazz opera” or an opera in any traditional sense of the word is quite a stretch. The libretto by Mark Miller takes the aspirations, loves and professional determinations of its characters and paints a sort of small scale ‘soap opera’ that is much like a chamber musical. This ‘opera’ is clever to be sure and mostly enjoyable musically; it just rather misses the mark in the drama department. Again, it exists in a medium world that is not really classical opera nor is it music theatre. Not to worry though. Angel gets the girl and the Bluebloods… win the pennant.”
Cooperstown is an inventive and engaging chamber opera that deserves the attention of diverse audiences. Jim Sohre (general director), the OLV Board, patrons, donors and volunteers can be proud that they were instrumental in bringing such an innovative work by a living composer to local audiences.
Sasha Matson was born in Seattle, and grew up in Berkeley, California. As an undergraduate, he attended the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and completed graduate studies at UCLA where he received his PhD. in Music Theory and Composition. His credits include the scores for a dozen dramatic feature films. Mr. Matson's recordings include two albums with audiophile producer Joe Harley- Steel Chords & i-5 (AudioQuest Music), and Range of Light (New Albion Records), followed by two albums produced by John Atkinson: Cooperstown (Albany/Troy Record ), and Tight Lines (Stereophile Records).
Opera Las Vegas is a nonprofit professional opera company featuring full-scale productions and outreach programs, producing high-quality opera performances in a variety of venues including The Smith Center, UNLV, libraries, and site-specific performances.