The Atlanta Opera concludes its spring ’21 season this weekend
Mark Gresham | 05 MAY 2021
The Atlanta Opera‘s outdoor productions of The Threepenny Carmen and The Threepenny Opera come to a close this weekend. Along with the evening performances of these two operas, a set of three Saturday matinee concerts were also scheduled, with two having already been performed: Crossroads: The Sequel and Imagine Broadway. Both were one-day-only events.
A third, Concert for Unity, will be performed this Saturday under the company’s Big Tent on the campus of the Cobb Energy Center, with a second performance the following afternoon at the Southwest Arts Center, in partnership with True Colors Theatre.
Here are a few thoughts from experiencing the first two concerts, along with a brief look forward at the final concert this weekend.
Crossroads: The Sequel
They called it “The Sequel” because it’s a direct follow-up on the successful Crossroads: A Variety Show concert performed in mid-November 2020, when the pandemic was roaring full blast and The Atlanta Opera was just beginning to learn how to deal with it in practice rather than just in theory.
Returning for “The Sequel” were the husband-and-wife team of mezzo-soprano Megan Marino and baritone Michael Mayes. Joining them this time around were mezzo Gabrielle Beteag, baritone Joshua Conyers and baritone Theo Hoffman. The performers provided their own accompaniment with Mayes and Hoffman on guitars, Beteag on ukulele and guitar, and Marino playing piano and melodica.
The program of sixteen songs plus and encore, kicked off with “Seven Bridges Road” the by songwriter Steve Young (who was born in Newnan, Georgia, and grew up in Gadsden, Alabama, and the state of Texas, as his family moved from place to place searching for work), which became a hit for Eagles and Young’s best-known song among his long career in country, country rock and outlaw country music. The concert concluded with Woody Guthrie’s ubiquitous “House of the Rising Sun,” followed by an upbeat encore, “You Are My Sunshine,” a 1939 song reputedly by Jimmie Davis, a country music singer and twice governor of his native Louisiana, and his collaborator Charles Mitchell. These musical bookends might have easily anchored the concert in Southern culture, but in between was much more of a mix.
The most far afield from that was “Love” by Musiq Soulchild (or simply Musiq), an American singer/songwriter who blends R&B, funk, blues, jazz, gospel influences with hip hop — not only in genre, but also unique because Conyers sang it accompanied fixed media soundtrack. Given the genre and the musical instruments on hand, that was necessary. “Love,” which was Musiq’s second single, spent 22 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.
The rest were accompanied by the singers themselves. We got the traditional folk-gospel “The Wayfaring Stranger,” “Rocky Mountain Stars” by Mayes’ musical buddy Jason Hicks of the Blue Mountain Boys (sung by Mayes), “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” Bob Dylan, “Roll Away Your Stone” by the English folk rock band Mumford & Sons.
Jazz standards“For Heaven’s Sake,” “Lady Be Good” by the Gershwin brothers, and “What a Wonderful World” were included, as was more pop-oriented fare like “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson and Sonny Bono’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).” The balance of the program included “Nights When I Am Sane” by Mickey Newbury; “Sweet Dreams (of You),” Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” and “In Spite of Ourselves” by John Prine.
Closer to the operatic experience, but still with its own vernacular elements is musical theater, and while we talk about “Broadway” as representing it, we have to include the musical theater of London’s West End, from whence so many newer musicals have emerged. So many classic and contemporary have been taken up by opera companies that often one will be found within a given season – note that the Atlanta Opera has on hold a production of The Sound of Music once the pandemic is past, hopefully, one would think, this coming 2021-22 season. Keep your fingers crossed that such large productions of both musicals and operas can be presented to the public by then.
As did the Crossroads concert, Imagine Broadway featured, without roster overlap, five singers from The Atlanta Opera’s current “Threepenny” productions – Kelly Kaduce, Richard Trey Smagur, Calvin Griffin, Susanne Burgess and Jay Hunter Morris – accompanied by pianist Elena Kholodova. Also parallel to Crossroads there were 16 songs, but in this case plus a grand finale rather than an encore as number 17.
What was most interesting was the complete absence of any Rodgers & Hammerstein, which is okay. It’s so easy to overdo that particular repertoire, however much loved. And we got a couple of less-heard items as a result, which is a frankly more refreshing approach.
There were, of course, a number of “the usual suspects” from Broadway and West End repertoire: “Send in the Clowns” (A Little Night Music), “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (The Wizard of Oz), “Impossible Dream” (Man of La Mancha), “Think of Me” (Phantom of the Opera), “Confrontation” and “Stars” (Les Misérables) and the extensively recorded “So in Love” from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate.
But we also got some of the items that don’t usually make it into the Top 10 of Broadway reviews: “The Sing That Goes Like This” (Spamalot), and one song not every used in a musical (to my knowledge, at least), comedian/satirist Tom Lehrer’s “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” from the album An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer.
Another song with a more interesting history in musicals was “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” which was credited in the program list as from the musical Fosse. It was previously used by Fosse in his musical Big Deal. But the song has its origins long before that: Ethel Merman introduced the song in George White’s Scandals of 1931.
With Kaduce doubling as the show’s emcee, the show opened with “Agony” from Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, a musical which intertwines the plots of Brothers Grimm fairy tales and won multiple awards for both its original Broadway and original London productions. We also got “Practical Arrangement” (The Last Ship, music by Sting), “What About Her?” (The Wild Party, by Andrew Lippa), “Make Them Hear You” (Ragtime), “Mister Cellophane” (Chicago) and “You’re Welcome” from the 2016 Disney animated film Moana.
The grand finale encore was an ensemble rendition of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” from Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun. In a show of Broadway repertoire, how could you possibly follow that?
You can follow it with the fact that in both Crossroads: The Sequel and Imagine Broadway that, unlike the two operas they are performing in, none of the singers wore masks, nor were they obliged to sing while ensconced in clear plastic cubicles. (Witness the ironic nod to this by the presence of the song “Mister Cellophane” in Imagine Broadway.) For whatever reasons they could, whether a small number of them distanced in fixed positions on stage, vaccinations or other criteria, this is a huge step forward at on the stage at least, even if we, the audience, are still obliged to wear masks and keep them on.
Concert for Unity
This Saturday and Sunday, The Atlanta Opera and Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company present the Concert for Unity, “a celebration of Atlanta’s diversity through music.”
Created and led by Atlanta native and renowned bass opera singer Morris Robinson, Concert for Unity will feature performances of spirituals, gospel, rock and opera by Robinson and noted fellow Black opera singers Joshua Conyers, Ronnita Miller and Jasmine Habersham, accompanied by pianist Damien Sneed, as well as a spoken word performance by actor Enoch King.
The two Concert for Unity performances are scheduled as follows:
- Saturday, May 8 @ 2:00pm at The Big Tent, Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center Tickets and information: atlantaopera.org (or tel: 404-881-8885)
- Sunday, May 9 @ 2:30pm at the Southwest Arts Center, presented by the City of South Fulton Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs. Tickets and info: truecolorstheatre.org.
In addition to the concerts, a virtual panel discussion entitled “Black Voices in Classical Music: A Conversation About Access,” will be streamed on Thursday, May 6th, as part of True Colors’ Community Conversations series. The panel, led by noted historian and scholar Dr. Maurice Wheeler and featuring Morris Robinson, will discuss the challenges of access for emerging Black opera singers. More information and tickets for the online event can be obtain at can be obtained at truecolorstheatre.org. ■