One of Alabama’s most significant art events in years happened in Huntsville last week, and the state media couldn’t muster a single reviewer for it. OK, there were advance stories in the Tuscaloosa News, Birmingham News and on the Huntsville NPR station, WLRH. Outside the state, USA Today mentioned it. But as best I can tell, nobody sent a reviewer. So Mark Childress — one of the most distinguished Alabama talents in my lifetime — had to write his own review, which I’m re-publishing below for the record.
I’ve been writing for the better part of a decade about our broken business model for journalism. From the very beginning, I suggested that by putting all of the journalists’ products on the Internet for free, we were muzzling the threshing ox. Which is to say, we cut off the flow of money to the people who create the product. When people quit getting paid, they quit working and creating.
From the start of our massive slide to ignorance, I warned that without serious journalism, we have no way of knowing how to vote, or what to buy. I neglected to note that we would have nobody to steer our attention to the fine arts — to the world beyond the lowest common denominators of MTM and the Oscars. In the heyday of journalism, my newspaper (The Birmingham News) had Oliver Roosevelt, who possessed a musicology degree from Harvard, and Kenneth Paul Shorey, who had the technical background to talk seriously about the merits of films and stage productions. They and others would point us to events, music, movies and art that we’d never appreciate by following the crowd.
What remains today is a shabby remnant of what journalism can be, and what it has been. It’s a crime, and one whose victims include those who create serious literature, music, drama and art in all its forms. But we are all victims, robbed of reliable guides to those things that would enrich our lives if only we knew about them.
Here’s Mark’s review, used by permission:
Georgia Bottoms” opera: A Completely Biased Review
By Mark Childress
As far as I know, “Georgia Bottoms: A Comic Opera of the Modern South” is the only full-length opera ever written about Alabama, co-written by an Alabamian, created and developed entirely in Alabama, staged and performed in Alabama. If I’m wrong about that, I’m sure one of my readers will let me know.
Since the internet killed off most daily journalism in Alabama, I should not have been surprised that no reviewers came to our performance. I cannot pretend to be an unbiased reviewer. But neither can I let the occasion pass without calling attention to the individual contributions of the people who staged an entire opera with full sets and costumes in less than week – something of a miracle, if you think about it.
(If you’ve heard enough already about this opera, scroll down for cute kitten videos further down in your News Feed….) wink emoticon
The good people of the Huntsville Symphony and all the technicians, sound and lighting guys, stagehands, set designers, craftsmen, artists, and volunteers in the production executed their jobs with panache. Special kudos to Karl King for his abstract but beautifully specific set.
I’ve already talked about Rebecca Nelsen, the soprano from Texas by way of Vienna who was onstage for every moment in the title role. Rebecca’s portrayal was funny and full of life, gorgeously sung, subtle and moving. Whatever the weaknesses of the libretto, this Georgia emerged triumphant.
As the Rev. Eugene Hendrix, whose affair with Georgia is the catalyst that kicks of the story, tenor Christopher Pfund brought wit and a powerful voice.
The second of Georgia’s lovers, Judge Barnett, was played with great humor and the thundering bass voice of Aaron Sorenson, ably doubling as Officer Jimmy.
To round out the trio, tenor Daniel Weeks brought down the house with his pained singing about the perils of a certain little blue pill. (He was funny as Officer Lester, too.)
Shane Kennedy, a mainstay of the Huntsville musical scene, brought out all the tenderness of the most repressed character, Sheriff Bill.
The role of the semi-tyrannical preacher’s wife Brenda Hendrix was entirely owned by Karen Young, another strong and expert voice from the Huntsville musical community.
As Georgia’s best friend, Mayor Krystal Lambert of Six Points, Tamara Gallo brought a vivid stage presence. Her lovely commanding soprano was an intimate counterpoint to the voice of the leading lady; her acting was precise and as warm as her voice.
The singer contracted to play Little Mama dropped out at the very last minute, not very Nicely if you ask me. The day was saved by Huntsville’s own Elizabeth Stephenson, who stepped in to learn the part in just five days. Her entrances, her exits, her gunplay, and her unvarnished opinions garnered some of the night’s biggest laughs.
You would never know Michael Nyby hails from Ontario, Canada – he wrapped his big baritone around those Southern vowels as if he was born drinking sweet tea. His performance as Rev. Brent Colgate was one of the big surprises of the evening, for this reviewer – his initial air of sexy danger gave way in the third act to a palpable sense of evil that kind of unnerved even the co-librettist.
Alabama’s opera community was beautifully represented by Jennifer Bryant in the role of Daphne Colgate. Her swoopy expressions of cosmic cluelessness were exactly what the character needed.
As the author of the piece, the biggest surprise of the evening for me was how the character Nathan came to seem the beating heart of the story – the moral center of the crazy little universe I had created. I think this was due in no small part to the performance of Keith Browning, who was painstakingly directed by David Gately. It was amazing watching Mr. Browning grow in stature and power in every rehearsal.
Thank you, thank you to all of our wonderful singers, and to everyone who had anything to do with bringing about this little musical miracle. I hope I will get to see and hear all of you again sometime soon. No matter who plays these roles from now on, you will always be the first people who did it – the people who figured out how. Thank you.
The players of the Huntsville Symphony took on a brand-new piece of very complicated challenging music, filled with changing time signatures, eccentric rhythms and intricately detailed figures. They hadn’t played a note of the opera until Monday, and by Saturday night they were great.
(David Gately gives his last notes the night before the performance. Photo by Gregory Vajda)