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'American Shorts' channels classic TV with a few twists
By Steven Brown, Houston Chronicle
June 19, 2014

Opera demands a sense of humor, and some serious operas demand it most of all. How else can audiences get past the crazed characters and convoluted plots to feel the pathos?

Milton Granger's "Talk Opera" mines that mix of tragedy and craziness for all it's worth. The veteran Broadway musician and chamber-opera composer's comic fantasy is the gem in the "American Shorts" program currently being staged by Lone Star Lyric.

The lyrical theater group produces cabaret shows during its regular season and a two-week summer festival of cabaret and opera, performing in the pocket-size Ovations theater in Rice Village. It draws its casts from Houston-area singers who also perform with Opera in the Heights, Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Houston and Mercury.

"Talk Opera," one of the show's six mini productions (all sung in English), unfolds on a television talk show. Think Jerry Springer - or Sally Jessy Raphael, the bespectacled redhead who is the model for Cookie, host of "Cookie Time."

Cookie's topic for the day is "My father works for my boyfriend." Her guests: Rigoletto, Gilda and the Duke of Mantua, uprooted from their natural habitat of Giuseppe Verdi's "Rigoletto."

The overprotective father, gullible young woman and skirt-chasing duke come face to face with talk-show theatrics and armchair psychology. Cookie quizzes each of them, trying to understand their passions and delusions. She interrogates the Duke about his attitude toward women and suggests Rigoletto try group therapy. The more earnestly she tries to enlighten them, the sillier her efforts appear. Granger's wry, lively music heightens the effect.

When Cookie touches a nerve, her guests burst forth with music from Verdi. The collisions between grand-opera vocalism and the show's cheesiness deliver the richest comedy.

People who are familiar with "Rigoletto" will get the most out of "Talk Opera." But I suspect anyone would savor the juxtaposition of modern television and Verdi's characters, with their foreign mindsets, antique garb and full-throttle voices.

Besides great comic performances, part of what made the humor so potent during the show's opening Saturday was the red-blooded singing, which sounded as if the "Rigoletto" characters had been plucked from the original opera. Soprano Amanda Kingston, as Gilda, sang with the lushness she displayed in Opera in the Heights' March production of Gaetano Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor." When Rigoletto got fed up with Cookie's advice, baritone Brian Shircliffe's outbursts packed a wallop. Tenor Tyson Miller gave the Duke's music a devil-may-care vigor.

As Cookie, Lone Star Lyric artistic director Kelli Estes captured the nonstop inquisitiveness and faux sympathy that are TV hosts' stock in trade. Alicia Chew and Monica Sciaky chimed in lustily as audience members. Pianist and music director Stephen Dubberly played with spirit, as he did all evening.

"American Shorts" frames itself as a night of programming on an imaginary classic-TV channel, with John Lienhard, host of Houston Public Media's "The Engines of Our Ingenuity," leading the proceedings.

The other pieces include "Four Recipes," by Leonard Bernstein and William Bolcom's "Minicabs," both of which offer glimpses of celebrity-chef cooking shows; Douglas Moore's "Gallantry," a 1958 soap-opera parody; Samuel Barber's "A Hand of Bridge"; and Jake Heggie's "Again," which revisits "I Love Lucy."

All the casts perform with conviction, and it's interesting to see little-known works by Barber, Heggie and Moore. But "Talk Opera" steals the show.

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