ONE Festival Review: National Sawdust Log

In Review: ONE Festival

Omaha, Nebraska
March 30-April 14, 2019

Words: Xenia Hanusiak

Opera Omaha’s ONE Festival, co-directed by the company’s general director, Roger Weitz, and director James Darrah, is a multidisciplinary two-week series that presents opera, installation, dance, exhibitions, and social gatherings designed to embrace Omaha’s creative community. The multi-venue festival also offers a generously supported platform for the next generation of creators, reflecting the company’s notable commitment to the breadth of operatic representation and audience growth. The festival is impressively international in scope, with creators and performers represented from across the globe, and extraordinarily well resourced.

In this second iteration, two new productions occupied the central focus. A newly edited version of Gounod’s Faust, conducted by Steven White with Lileana Blain-Cruz in the director’s chair, enjoyed a two-performance run at the sumptuous Orpheum Theater. And Philip Glass’s dance opera Les Enfants Terribles, directed by Darrah with choreography by Gustavo Ramirez Sansano, had a five-performance engagement at an industrially inclined work-arts space, the Mastercraft Building.

I attended the final weekend of the festival, April 12-14. My itinerary began at the Joslyn Arts Museum with the newly anointed Pulitzer Prize winner Ellen Reid’s curation of the installation Playground, an operatic sound sculpture, and an accompanying performance work called Run, a 20-minute monodrama.

Designed by Julia Noulin-Mérat, the installation is modeled on a familiar children’s playground set, and serves as a compact musical construction offering young children an opportunity to create soundscapes in a physical environment.

Run is a composed and staged work for adult audiences, choreographed within the frame of Playground. The work begins with two percussionists (International Contemporary Ensemble members Ross Karre and Clara Warnaar) creating a current of tension with cells of motivic material, extemporized within the limited tonal scope of the playground orchestra. A vocalist (mezzo-soprano Naomi Louisa O’Connell) enters the soundscape in a trancelike state, singing a soothing and retrospective vocalise before launching into fragments of text written by Zackary Drucker, the librettist. Drucker’s condensed, lyrical offering is an ode to longing and companionship. The reference of the title Run suggests that the lover cannot escape her fate, and the playground serves as a harbor for her captive heart.

Reid’s music for the playground and its inhabitants is a hybrid: the vocal part is fully notated, whereas the percussion score is graphic. Reid instructs the percussionists to improvise in tonal clusters on objects of like timbre: plastics, wood, metals. Her approach allows the performers to roam, jump, and dance around the set freely, creating not just an aural environment but a human sound sculpture.

The three performers weave in and out of each other’s paths, musically and physically. The reverberations of the gallery space amplify the upper partials of the vocal lines, disqualifying the clear articulation of the text and hence diminishing our connection. As a result, the experience is mysterious. O’Connell’s performance is sincere and the work presents itself as a vignette—a moment of transience.

In the afternoon the ever-adventurous ICE musicians performed in collaboration with CINEsound, an operated film series at the Ruth Sokolof Theater. Under the curatorial vision of ICE percussionist and temporal artist Karre, the four-presentation series offered a range of experimental films, with live sound scores intended to show the breadth of what the term “operatic” connotes. In this sense, the rationale of the programming here can’t be attributed to the literal sense of what we know as opera as a form, but by the inferences of the meanings of dramatic or extravagant as implied in the adjective of “operatic.”

In the Saturday afternoon program “Silents in Concert,” the core members of ICE accompanied a series of short films: a duo of experimental animations by British artist Jodie Mack, a film collage travelogue movie called On the Coast by Turkish filmmakers Merve Kayan and Zeynep Dadak, and Albert Lamorisse’s celebrated 1956 classic, The Red Balloon.

In each case, the filmic experience was vivified by the musical sensitivity of the ICE players. The accompaniments to The Red Balloon were particularly virtuosic, and artistically sensitive to Lamorisse’s transporting imaginations. Warnaar brought an elegant, theatrically astute layer to Mack’s abstract animations in Blanket Statements#1.

Les Enfants Terribles, the final installment of Philip Glass’s homage to Jean Cocteau, has enjoyed remarkable attention since its premiere in 1996, and most especially over the past few years in recognition of the composer’s 80th birthday milestone. Based on Cocteau’s 1929 novel, the Glass/Susan Marshall libretto focuses on the tale of brother and sister Paul and Elizabeth (Lise), who through the circumstances of the death of their father and a debilitating accident for Paul are forced to live an isolated and cloistered childhood. Cut off from the outside world and confined to their bedroom, the siblings create an imaginary existence filled with precocious games of daring and torment. Their relationship is incestuous. But it is at the moment that their lives intersect with the outside world that Lise’s dark, narcissistic traits unravel to a horrifying, tragic end.

Eager to escape, Lise gets a job as a model. She befriends Agathe, a woman who resembles Dargelos, the young man who was responsible for the accident that incapacitated Paul. Her fiancée Michael dies unexpectedly in a car crash. In tandem, Agathe falls in love with Paul, but Lise intervenes, influencing her friend Gérard to marry Agathe. The revelations of truth result in tragic death.

The narrative of Les Enfants Terribles, scored for quartets of singers and dancers accompanied by three grand pianos, is equally distributed. The dance component is not defined by its role in traditional opera as a divertissement, but as an equal protagonist. The work’s success thus relies on the concerted synergies of the cast and the collective of the creative team.

This Opera Omaha production triumphs. Yuki Izumihara’s stark white minimalist set, staged as a wooden raked platform and surrounded by a moat, provided an icy setting that accentuated the snow leitmotif of Cocteau’s tale. The aesthetic was deliberately spacious and metaphorically open-ended, leaving it to the performers and the directive choreography to illustrate the claustrophobic, tense, and perverse environment. Darrah and Sansano responded with a series of sensual and synergistic instructions for their talented ensemble cast.

As Elisabeth, soprano Vanessa Becerra commanded attention with her beguiling personality and obvious assets as a dancer. Theo Hoffman’s Paul was exemplary in voice and portrayal—he is a talent to watch. Naomi Louisa O’Connell galvanized with her distinctive mezzo-soprano voice in the androgynous roles of Dargelos/Agathe. The amplification of the narrator’s role was irksome, robbing Adrian Kramer and the audience of the important commentary. But his Gérard succeeded.

There is not a lot you more you could wish from the exemplary ensemble of dancers (Shauna Davis, Chris Emile, Lindsey Matheis, and Charbel Rohayem), who supported the drama with psychological and emotional insights. David Bloom’s approach to conducting is exuberant and theatrical, an all-in style that spills onto the stage. Certainly, Bloom has a flair for the dramatic flourish, but his energy doesn’t diminish his attention to detail—evidenced here in his care for phrasing and diction.

I reserve the highest accolade to French costume designer Camille Assaf, who singlehandedly unified the progression of the drama and character portrayals with her deft tonal palette and the distinguished tailoring and style of her costumes. This production owes her a great deal. In sum, this realization of Les Enfants Terribles succeeded by virtue of its steadfast commitment to a true ensemble performance.

Opera Omaha’s ONE Festival is a heroic enterprise, impressive for both its vision and its commitment. One might have wished for more visibility on the streets of Omaha: street signage, perhaps a central late-night cabaret club or daytime meeting hub. Still, it’s early days for this ambitious festival—and the good news is that plans for next season are already on the drawing table.


As an opera singer, writer, cultural commentator and curator Xenia Hanusiak contributes to the stage, the page, and the intervals in between. She holds a PhD in Literature and several degrees in classical music. Her works for the stage include the play Ward B, Un_labelled (Boosey & Hawkes/Young Peoples’ Chorus of New York City); the libretto A thousand doors, a thousand windows (Melbourne International Arts Festival, Singapore Arts Festival, Venice Biennale); Earth Songs (Homart Korean Theatre); and the dramatic monologue The MsTaken Identity (Adelaide Festival of Arts/Australian String Quartet).

Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.