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Seattle’s Watershed Opera presents modernized, family-friendly arias

Watershed Opera's “Femmes Fatale” presented an evening of murder, mystery and mermaids at Town Hall Seattle on Dec. 3. Credit: Watershed Opera

The singers of Watershed Opera are more attractive than the law allows. Svelte and sexy, their look falls somewhere between soap opera glamour and glitzy prom-wear. Think sequined evening gowns, slinky chiffon scarves and sweeping up-dos. If you ever wondered who, besides 15-year-olds, buys those rhinestone chandelier earrings at Claire’s Boutique in the mall, the answer is pretty people with pretty voices. They aren’t tacky, however. They’re having fun with the opera singer stereotype.

The company’s willingness to embrace opera’s clichés, play with them a bit, then move to a more challenging level, while trusting that the audience will follow, is what makes Watershed an exciting new force in local opera. The group, which recently made the move to Seattle from New York City, refers to itself as a “stepping stone company,” operating between post-conservatory “young artist” programs and the likes of Seattle Opera or the rarefied Met.

They’re still fairly unexposed around town, having made only a handful of appearances, including a Sept. 18 showing at Seattle Symphony’s “Day of Music” at Benaroya Hall, a gig at the Good Shepherd Center in March with “acoustical scientists” in a production titled “Opera and Science,” and a family-friendly show last December at Laurelhurst Community Center.

Their Dec. 3 performance, “Femmes Fatale,” held in Town Hall Seattle’s cozy downstairs space, gave the audience a three-part showcase of classic arias, excerpts from an “easy” modern opera, and a tantalizing taste of a bold work-in-progress set in the Puget Sound region. Opening the bill of traditional fare was soprano Leslie Marks, who presented an infectious, giggly “Je suis encore tout étourdie” (translated by Watershed as “I’m still totally overwhelmed”) from Manon.

The eponymous heroine, a teenage carriage-thief who shacks up with a rich lover, is the quintessential operatic bad girl, who just might be an empowered woman trying to make her way in a pre-feminist epoch. Marks brought an easy lift to the upper register, making expert vocal control look like a lot of fun.

With a far darker soprano, like steamy coffee stirred with a dollop of cream, Sarah Fletcher offered an intense “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca. Puccini’s aria is designed to be a show-stopper and can feel overused (Tosca is an opera singer who lived only for art and love — can there be a more obvious concert/audition piece?), but Fletcher lent an unexpected freshness to the aria, especially in the climactic cry to heaven, “Perché, perché, Signore?” (“Why, why, Lord?”).

Then came Yu Seok Oh, a baritone handsome enough to be the fifth member of Simon Cowell’s pop-opera group, Il Divo. With a wonderfully bone-rattling resonance, he launched into the most popular of the three arias — the ubiquitous Toreador Song from Carmen. Oh had the bravado and élan nailed, but his muddy pronunciation of the French lyrics was regrettable.

After the audience was suitably warmed up, Watershed’s founder and general director, Jordan Corbin Wentworth, presented two excerpts from her first opera, which debuted in 2009. Her The Day Boy and the Night Girl is a surreal nature vs. nurture debate. Two children are stolen by a witch and raised apart, the boy in the daylight and the girl in the dark of night.

In what appeared at first to be a choice dictated either by ego or worrisome control issues, Wentworth performed the “Winter moon” aria while accompanying herself on the piano, her back turned to the audience the entire time. In addition to being a composer, she’s got a bell-like soprano, razor-sharp diction, and plays a mean baby grand. She later confessed that this was actually a last-minute improvisation, necessitated by a sick performer who had to skip the show.

Wentworth was joined by Fletcher, Marks, soprano Yvette Litchfield, and soprano Evelyn Hartwell for the opera’s Mermaid quintet. Though lovely, with scintillating soprano harmonies, the score felt small-scale and derivative. It sounded at times like a 1980s-era musical sung in an operatic style.

Far more impressive was the excerpt of her latest composition, Missing, a modern day mystery. Wentworth wisely brought in a mini-orchestra of violin, cello, bass, oboe, and flute to back up her piano playing. The cast, in turn, doffed their formalwear for streetwise costumes, adding to the sense that this was a serious presentation of one of the rarest of all performing arts offerings — a brand new opera.

The plot of Missing centers on banker Jeremy’s obsession with a woman he has seen on “missing person” posters, but has never met. The cast of characters includes a set of drug-dealing twins who operate out of a coffee stand, the captain of the Anacortes Ferry, and what Wentworth amusingly calls “a whole shipful of lesbians.” Missing benefits from an English libretto with colloquial lyrics.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with operas in English, the singers’ enunciation was impenetrable. For whole passages, they seemed to be spouting gibberish. Then suddenly there would be a phrase, a sentence, or even a whole passage that was crystal clear: “Smoke, drink, and pass out. Day in and year out,” Marks could be heard to sing at one point. “Love makes a woman beautiful. . . . If you’ve ever been in love, this is the face you’ll see,” she continued moments later. What spurred the transition from liquor to love? A more detailed explanation of the action prior to the performance would have been helpful.

Still, the music, regardless of the muddled words, was tightly constructed and showed more ambition than Wentworth’s previous offering. With string work reminiscent of Philip Glass’ predilection for haunting repetition, the orchestration was hypnotic and laced with a feeling of dread. When Fletcher as Maris, the mysterious gypsy, ended the scene with a slow, spinning dance matched by spiraling, Eastern European-flavored tones, it became apparent that the opera has definite potential as a dramatic work.

“Femmes Fatale” was highly accessible, with a more inviting aura than the average community concert put on by a major opera company. The performers were helped in no small way by Town Hall’s homey stage, which resembles an early-20th century veranda. It was as if the folks from The Music Man decided to decline the whole marching band scam in order to stage a good ol’ fashioned opera on Marian the librarian’s front porch.

The audience ranged in age from preschoolers to senior citizens, and the sartorial turn-out spanned the scale from jeans to three-piece suits to one die-hard opera fan’s sparkly Rusalka costume, an homage to Dvorák’s occasionally-performed opera of the same name. Their enthusiasm for what they were hearing was apparent, whether long-time aficionados or operatic first-timers. The evening could easily become a popular monthly feature in Seattle, with a new scene from Missing presented each time, like an old-time serial mystery.

What do you say, Watershed?

For details on upcoming productions, visit www.watershedopera.com.

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