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America Tropical

May 7, 2007

Chamber opera is one of my favorite artistic forms. Its capable of packing a big punch in a small package. Sometimes, though, the package is too small for the punch. This is the case with composer David Conte and librettist Oliver Mayer's new opera, America Tropical.

The work, which runs to barely an hour, weaves together three narratives about Los Angeles. The first, and most interesting, is the story of the Mexican muralist and activist David Alfaro Siqueiro's famous 1932 mural, La America Tropical. Depicting an Indian being crucified on a double cross capped by an American Eagle, the symbolic work makes a powerful political statement about the oppression of the worker by American imperialism.

The mural was painted over soon after it was completed. In the 1960s, it was rediscovered and is currently being restored. But these fascinating details about the mural's history are omitted from the opera, which focuses on linking Siqueiros' story with the story of the founders of Los Angeles -- a band of Pobladores who arrived in 1781 from Mexico to build the city that would become L.A. a century later, and the story of George Holliday, the plumber who caused a media sensation in 1991 when he caught the beating of Rodney King on video with his handycam.

Despite a warm, lush score by Conte performed by a chamber orchestra consisting of flute, clarinets, cello, bass, violin and piano, a cast of eight wonderful singer-actors, and director Tony Kelly's evocative staging, America Tropical fits uncomfortably into the chamber opera format. It's an incredibly ambitious piece that might work if it were a full-scale opera, with room for these three narratives to develop properly and space for different moods. But as it is, the whole thing feels truncated and overwhelmingly didactic. Even with the aid of the synopsis in the program, it's hard to follow how the stories interrelate. And despite the variety in Conte's musical palette, the pacing and atmosphere of the piece remain the same throughout. The whole denouement is played for maximum emotion and intensity. It's exhausting to watch.

Conte and Kelly's last collaboration, Firebird Motel, in 2003, is a perfect chamber opera. Much less ambitious in its storytelling, yet more resonant and subtle in its theme, the work is everything that America tropical is not. Here's the short review I wrote about it for the San Francisco Bay Guardian:

In Firebird Motel, a haunting new chamber opera by composer David Conte and librettist David Yezzi commissioned by Thick Description, the graveyard shift in a lonely Mojave Desert motel literally becomes a graveyard. Visited by the ghost of a young woman who was murdered, Ivan, the seedy motel’s shy night clerk, tries to save the life of another girl destined to meet the same fate. Weaving influences of ragtime jazz and Baroque Cantata into strands of weeping, dissonant strings and melodious clarinet and vocal lines, Conte’s music is as mesmerizing as the eerie purple light that shrouds the stage every time Julie’s specter appears. Gutsy performances by Mark Hernandez, Milissa Carey, Julie Queen, Shawnette Sulker and Micah Epps counterpoise Mikiko Uesugi’s soulless set and Cassandra Carpenter’s trailer trash costumes to create an arresting balance between the squalid and the sublime.

At it's best, a chamber opera is a perfectly formed jewel. The collaborators on American Tropical, however, wanted to forge an entire crown.

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