Dog Days review: David T Little presents 'opera theater' at its finest

Jan 10, 2016

“Get me my rifle” is the opera’s first line.

If you’re familiar with the bracing body of work built up by the young composer and percussionist David T Little, you’ll know some of what to expect in the two hours and change that follows: meditations on militarism; a chamber-opera sound with electric guitar and excitable, post-minimalist riffing; vocal lines that tread into musical theater territory; and more classical vibrato singing. There are plenty of meter changes, as well – despite the fact that Little isn’t playing drums with the onstage band this time around.

But what impressed me most at Saturday’s New York premiere of Dog Days – a piece Little and his librettist, Royce Vavrek, have dubbed “opera theater” – was the diverse range of emotional effects the creative team has wrung from ingredients largely similar to those that went into Soldier Songs, another stage work by Little.

Whereas Soldier’s grim irony was less inspired than its frenzied instrumental composition, Dog Days hits on all cylinders. Here, Little brings rock-tinged aggression to his scoring again, but the moments of mourning land with greater impact, even when volume quiets. The scenes are tight and flow together well, which is no small thing in the classic “from bad to worse” arc, which needs propulsion to keep the audience from going numb to the story’s pain.

Per the playbill, Dog Days concerns a “working-class American family” struggling through privation in a “not-so-distant-future”, in which wartime disaster has ravaged the homeland. (The scenario was adapted from a Judy Budnitz short story of the same name.) Aside from infrequent, and clearly insufficient, government airdrops of supplies that crash on to the stage roughly once an act, we don’t get much more world detail than that.

But we don’t need any. The seven-person cast – five members of a family, a military captain, and a man (or is he?) in a filthy dog-suit getup – makes the world of the story seem fully realized.

Dog Days Teaser from PROTOTYPE Festival on Vimeo.

When the dog-man comes pawing around the dilapidated home belonging to the family – prompting the father’s call for a gun – we start to see how concrete, local effects trickle down from grander, intercontinental conflicts. The father’s hostility to the grubby half-man creaturesuggests the father is happy to rage at something he can plausibly protect against. (At other points, the father wants the dog-man to stand up straight and “act like a man”.)

Meantime, his wife is too weighed down by concern over what to serve for dinner to care one way or the other about the new presence. Their daughter sees a potential playmate and friend. Her brothers see a diversion: mocking their sister.

The piece’s sonic and verbal languages – dominated by jittery hooks and knowing sarcasm – tell you that the story isn’t going anywhere healthy. The “nuclear family” ideal seems irredeemably lost almost from the beginning. But Little’s writing for characters shows full command of his craft, and a different strategy for every scene. He gives the most confident character – a military captain looking to conscript the family’s sons – a saucy, strutting theme that would have played well in Weimar-era cabarets.

Elsewhere, a lengthy second act aria for Lisa, the daughter, is full of heart-rending power. As the malnourished girl looks into a bathroom mirror, she mouths platitudes that sound lifted from advertisements. “It’s happened! You look just like a model, Lisa,” she trills with surreal delight, over an uneasy network of rhythms.

Her face, projected above the stage, projects reality to us. (The video design by Jim Findlay is another highlight of this show, directed by Robert Woodruff.) There’s more blood and viscera later on in Dog Days, but this extended solo scene was, for me, the savage climax of the work. And for soprano Lauren Worsham, the extended passage also makes for an exquisite opportunity to display some potent acting abilities.

Some of the earlier ensemble writing for the family drifts toward cliche, with boys-will-be-boys jokes and parents who take a hard line seemingly at random. But Dog Days quickly moves far afield from looking or sounding like anything else, including Little’s own previous creations.

Led by conductor Alan Pierson, the members of the Newspeak ensemble handle Little’s complex, percussive and hook-filled music with suave assurance. The vocal cast, seasoned from previous stagings, likewise works at a high level – though English diction was occasionally mussed by the production’s vocal amplification (necessitated by the peaks Newspeak is asked to hit).

The Prototype Festival already has a fine reputation of bringing vibrant new operas to life in smaller New York venues, and this short-run production is one of its finest stagings yet. We’ve seen plenty of contemporary grand opera about the lives of historic figures. Here’s one dedicated to citizens occupying less august environs – the ones who plug away, sometimes in violent absurdity, while elite strategists ponder their campaigns far off stage.

Dog Days runs through 11 January.

Originally published at:  http://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/jan/10/dog-days-review-david-t-little-opera-theater-prototype-festival