‘Sara McKinnon’ a CU opera success

By Wes Blomster, Camera Classical Music Critic
Boulder Daily Camera
April 25, 2003

Richard Wagner set out to replace opera—often glorious music wasted on silly stories—with the Gesamtkunstwerk, the composite work of art, in which the verbal, visual and musical—delicately balanced—would total a sum greater than its assembled parts.

He tried—but didn’t reach his goal. (Try reading his “Meistersinger” libretto in its original contorted faux-Medieval German as drama!) Richard Strauss, employing playwrights all the way from Sophocles to Hofmansthal, came closer.

It was only Alban Berg, however, who realized Wagner's conceptual dream in his 1925 “Woyzeck.”

Now, with “Sara McKinnon,” on stage this weekend at the University of Colorado, composer Randall Shinn and librettist Mark Medoff have created a work—totally different from Berg in complexion, of course—that unites story, music, costumes and sets with stunning success.

The staging of this world premiere by CU Opera is a triumph for the program and testimony to the strength brought to it by Bill Gustafson, who rounds out his first year here with this final production of the season.

Medoff, famous for “Children of a Lesser God,” and Shinn, a CU graduate, are seasoned collaborators, and that comes across happily in the ease and aplomb with which they tell Sara's story.

A young Englishwoman confined to a loveless marriage, Sara arrives in an undefined American West on the heels of the Civil War.

There is nothing contrived in the Shinn/Medoff product. The sheriff, bad guys, good guys and the local madam are, to be sure, stereotypes of the Old West (John Wayne would be right at home here). There is, however, nothing stereotypical in their behavior, for Shinn and Medoff have created carefully crafted individuals, driven by credible drives and desires.

“Sara McKinnon” is rich in local color—both in story and music. A square dance, a bit of ragtime, a dash of Latin—like Copland at his best, this is a living slice of Americana.

The opera, however, is more than that; it rises above local color to achieve universal appeal.

Shinn’s score is often spellbinding; the audience is involved in every minute of the 2 ½-hour show.

And so total is the integration of component parts that listeners might easily overlook that it is music director Robert Spillmann, working with a minute pit band, who holds the entire thing together with dramatic coherence.

Shinn’s idiom is his own. His music is easily accessible - as long as one does not define “accessible” as something that one can whistle after a single hearing. This is a sophisticated score, yet it is never merely for the sake of sophistication. Every measure has meaning and function.

Mezzo Jennifer DeDominici creates a Sara, who, freed from her marriage by the murder of her sheriff husband (Patrick Mason), takes his place as a suddenly matured Annie who got her gun.

She holds her own against her many suitors, including honchos Florentino (Christopher McKim) and Bailador (David Gurule), stained sinners whose captivating charisma explains the presence of so many good people in Hell.

Alex Richardson (Felipe [renamed Diego]) is clearly a tenor of promise, and Kathy Wurster sings a charmingly youthful Celeste.

As the exotic “other,” bass Ashraf Sewailam is a knock-out as the Indian Mr. Singh.

Leslie Whistler, a wonderful madam Lily, makes the delights of dalliance on the frontier easily comprehensible. Her lily-white ladies-in-waiting, on the other hand, seem more a Sunday-school choir than daughters of depravity.

Medoff, doubling as director, makes the stage of the CU's intimate Music Theatre seem triple its size.

The large cast, almost continually on stage, moves about naturally and — along with minimal sets by Bruce Bergner, lighting by Steven Wallace and costumes by Tom Robbins — presents a continually changing panorama of the West.

“Sara McKinnon”—the equal of Wagner’s “Ring” in event and complexity—is a trifle long on plot; yet things happen fast, and the story is easy to follow.

Titles, however, are now ubiquitous in the opera world, and one misses them in the Music Theatre, even if “Sara McKinnon” is sung in English by a cast with generally good diction.

A title system—might one suggest?—would be a welcome gift from someone eager to support opera at CU.