Arts & Culture

Review: Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers

There’s an annual bonus for Fort Worth Opera subscribers with a sense of adventure. It’s called Frontiers, and it presents bits and pieces of operas that are newer than brand new; often they haven’t even been completed.

The third edition of Frontiers played out on Thursday and Friday in the auditorium of the Kahn building of the Kimbell Art Museum (not to be confused with the newer auditorium of the Renzo Piano Pavilion in the same compound). Scenes from eight operas were presented for audiences that were bigger than you might expect for such an experiment.

Fort Worth Opera General Director Darren K. Woods says the Frontiers operas are chosen by a panel of experts who have no idea who composed them (the scores are identified by numbers, not names).

The program takes place during the Fort Worth Opera festival because that’s when the company has available highly skilled professional singers who can cope with difficult scores. There’s a conductor for each performance, but no staging, and orchestral parts are taken by pianists.

This year’s crop was hearteningly appealing — musically, if not always dramatically.

My favorite of the eight was the last opera presented: The Song of Susan Smith by composer Zach Redler and librettist Mark Campbell. The subject matter was not appealing: Susan Smith is a real South Carolina woman who is serving a life sentence for drowning her two small sons; she first told police that they had been abducted by an African-American man.

But a long aria sung Friday night made it clear Smith had had more than her share of hard knocks in life — a point that created some sense of tragedy if not sympathy. The aria, which was quite moving, was sung brilliantly by soprano Maren Weinberger.

In another scene, Smith family members pray for the two boys. Their deep religious feelings might have been mocked by some composers but not here. The music for the prayer (a quartet including Weinberger, mezzo Clara Nieman, tenor Dane Suarez and bass-baritone Nate Mattingly) was dead-on perfect for the mood of the scene.

The participation of Weinberger was one illustration of the benefit of having top-notch singers available to take part in Frontiers. Weinberger was previously impressive as Annina in the Fort Worth Opera’s mainstage production of La Traviata. Another prominent participant in Frontiers was baritone Wes Mason, the lead singer in this season’s Hamlet.

Thursday night’s operatic fragments were The Sorrows of Frederick by composer Scott Wheeler and librettist Romulus Linney, The Golden Gate (Conrad Cummings as both composer and librettist), And Jill Came Tumbling After (Charles Halka and John Grimmett), and La Reina (Jorge Sosa and Laura Sosa).

Performed Friday night, in addition to The Song of Susan Smith, were When Adonis Calls (Clint Borzoni and John de los Santos), The Lady of Thi Kinh (P.Q. Phan both composer and librettist), and The Hill (Frank Ferko and Sally Gall).

By and large the music, which tended to be conservative, ranged from effective to downright appealing. This was a well-chosen crop of composers.