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Playwrights lend their star power to three mini-operas

What do you get when you mix three of America's most celebrated playwrights with three young composers of substantial recognition and ask them to write an opera?

Considering that none of the playwrights had ever written an opera libretto, and the composers had little or no operatic experience, one could have expected an incoherent mishmash of musical and dramatic styles.

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However, what the commissioning team of New York City Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, and Thirteen/WNET's "Great Performances" got for their visionary risk-taking was "Central Park," a triptych of new and original one-act operas that has been an unabashed hit with audiences.

Though reviews have been mixed, audiences have been flocking to see the latest dramatic efforts of Wendy Wasserstein, Terrence McNally, and A.R. Gurney, paired with the musical efforts of Deborah Drattell, Robert Beaser, and Michael Torke.

Following sold-out world premire performances at Glimmerglass in August, "Central Park," a New York City Opera production, opens tonight at Lincoln Center and tickets are scarce. Most of us will have to wait until Jan. 19, when "Great Performances" airs the opera on television.

Directed by Mark Lamos, "Central Park" features singers Lauren Flanigan and Joyce Castle (Mimi Lerner replaces Castle in the City Opera performances).

The three one-act operas are quite different from one another, both musically and dramatically. But what ties the three together is the unifying theme of Central Park, which seemed a natural point of departure, considering that all parties involved are currently Manhattanites.

Pulitzer Prize-winning Wendy Wasserstein created a libretto for Deborah Drattell, the composer-in-residence for New York City Opera and Glimmerglass Opera. Their The Festival of Regrets centers around a Jewish ritual at the Bethesda Fountain. Wasserstein peppers the work with zingy one-liners, which Drattell sets with a fairly somber, often dissonant klezmer-tinged score.

Dramatist A.R. Gurney collaborated with Michael Torke, best known for his compositional style of infusing a classical aesthetic with pop influences. Their affecting Strawberry Fields centers on an elderly woman with Alzheimer's disease who thinks her perch at the "Imagine" mosaic is a seat at the opera and that the concerned student who befriends her is her long-dead husband. Gurney's comic-poignant libretto is given a gentle, engagingly eclectic and lyrical treatment by Torke.

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Terrence McNally, who has had several musical projects on Broadway, teams with Robert Beaser, who has been called one of the leaders of the "New Tonalists." In their wrenching Food for Love, a young homeless woman tries unsuccessfully to get a kind passerby to take her infant son off to a better life. Beaser sets McNally's darkly witty, sometimes caustic libretto to a colorful and tuneful score.

What emerged from these partnerships are works in which Central Park is less a theme than a setting for intriguing examinations of human nature. While an array of joggers and Frisbee players remind the viewer of the location, the theme is more about the vicissitudes of life - loss, regret, and hope.

There was some controversy early on in the project when Aaron Jay Kernis, one of the original composers, left the project because of artistic differences with playwright McNally. This led to charges that the project was dramatically rather than musically driven, that even though none of the playwrights had ever written libretti before, it was the composers who were ultimately expendable.

And in fact, project mastermind Paul Kellogg, artistic director of both New York City Opera and Glimmerglass Opera, brought in all three playwrights before considering composers.

Since the composers had limited or no operatic credentials, and the playwrights were the marketing draws, the project proceeded accordingly. The challenge was choosing three playwrights willing to adapt their craft to operatic needs and then to pair them with compatible composers.

Gurney credits Kellogg, whom he called the "benevolent dictator" of the project, with great savvy in pairing seasoned playwrights with young, talented composers, a move he says created a strong dramatic-musical balance.

"Because we were older, with a little more clout than just a librettist he might have found somewhere, or another younger person just starting out, we could impose our thoughts on the composer," Gurney says. "But by the nature of opera, the composer is at the heart of matter. So the stories had a kind of weight that might not have occurred if all six participants were just starting out."

Torke adds, "Opera is theater, and we've forgotten that. We don't need wordsmiths and music critics writing libretti, we need playwrights....

"The one weak area in contemporary opera is the idea of original libretto, a new story with characters that are real, funny, and developed. That's quite novel these days. Pete's characters jumped off the page, and there was a strong bond between the kinds of emotions that were going on in my music and the kinds of emotion necessary to support Pete's characters."

When Wasserstein and Drattell entered into the project, Drattell had never dealt with material as comic as the playwright's, and Wasserstein didn't know the difference between a soprano and mezzo-soprano.

Nonetheless, Wasserstein came back with a libretto that Drattell calls "very musical" and the composer took it from there. "Once she gave the words to me, it was really my domain," Drattell explains. "I had to make it work musically, and what she gave me made it possible."

Says Wasserstein: "The voice is really a merger of both our voices, but in terms of collaboration, it's truly about the composer."

The two felt their collaboration was so successful, they are considering creating a new full-length opera and beginning to explore an operatic treatment for Wasserstein's popular play "The Sisters Rosensweig."

With a little fine-tuning, "Central Park" may serve as a model for opera projects in the coming millennium. Certainly the pairing of playwrights and composers makes theatrical sense. Whether trying to tie together three different one-acts by six different creators is the best format is still questionable.

But in the end, "Central Park" seems to be drawing a substantial number of new viewers to opera, partly due to the acclaim of its playwrights. Playwrights, composers, and opera enthusiasts are the beneficiaries.

The coalition of New York City Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, and "Great Performances" has supported the creation of three new American one-act operas that would not have existed otherwise, and that in itself is cause for celebration.

*'Central Park' is at Lincoln Center through Nov. 21.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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