A dystopian future. A society at war and under night-time curfew. A rural family struggling to make ends meet as food – dropped in by helicopter – becomes scarce and life turns into a fight for survival. Enter the world of Dog Days, the opera by US composer David T. Little that caused quite a stir at its New Jersey première in 2012, has already spanned the States and has just gained its first European production in Bielefeld. With a gritty libretto by Royce Vavrek, it is based on the short story by Judy Budnitz and attempts to explore what it takes for man to return to his animal instincts.

<i>Dog Days</i> © Bettina Stöss
Dog Days
© Bettina Stöss

In this post-apocalyptic world, a man dressed as a dog has latched on to the family and become the pet of daughter Lisa. Dad, Howard, spends his days out hunting for food; Mother attempts to keep the household together while the two sons, Pat and Elliot, lay about the house and smoke weed, and Lisa sends unanswered texts to her best friend, Marjorie. The sense of a society on its knees and the family unit the only thing holding together is palpable. The food runs out in the dead of winter and the boys casually remember that they eat dogs in China, don’t they…? Howard gets his rifle. The men have been pointing out all along that ‘Prince’ is a man in a dog suit, but that no longer stops them. The gruesome final scene, entitled ‘The Three Ravens’, sees the three tearing into his flesh as Little’s music reaches body-churning volumes and the army arrives to arrest them and hand over their house to a new family. Will the same cycle happen again?

Klaus Hemmerie’s fluid staging, aided by the multi-room house of Tilo Steffens’s revolving set, keeps things moving dramatically, even though much of the ‘action’ is actually quite static and even contemplative at times – Little’s opera is divided into self-contained scenes and musically is almost in number form, with discrete arias, duets and ensembles. The music itself draws in influences as wide as Coplandesque folksiness and Heavy Metal, and the ten instrumentalists – clarinet, four strings, piano, electric guitar and percussion – engage as much with lyricism as frenetic energy. Little’s largely diatonic language doesn’t stray too far harmonically, setting up short motifs that build into riffs that in turn expand rather than develop, in Minimalist style. Hints of gamelan intrude in Lisa’s aria with the dog in the ‘Friends’ scene and the squealing rock guitar takes over when Howard breaks down in a home-wrecking fury in Act II. It is perhaps at its most effective when ‘music’ gives over to noise in the denouement. 

<i>Dog Days</i> © Bettina Stöss
Dog Days
© Bettina Stöss

Little’s vocal writing is highly effective and operatic in its reach. The singing cast of six (the dog does no more than howl a couple of times) had rather varying approaches to American-English in pronunciation and accent, and communication wasn’t helped by the rather coarse vocal amplification used, which tended to divorce consonants from vowels. That said, Nienke Otten’s Lisa was the most convincing, and as the lead role, she particularly excelled in her two very long solo scenes, sensitive to the words and musical line. Yoshiaki Kimura’s Howard could be a bit blustery, but Melanie Kreuter made the mother a sympathetic figure. As the two sons, Lianghua Gong and Max Friedrich Schaeffer had satisfyingly contrasted tenor voices and made plausible teenage layabouts. The cameo from mezzo Nohad Becker as the Soldier made one wish her role had been longer than it was; and actor Omar El-Saeidi’s ‘Prince’ drew sympathy entirely through the use of body language. Menijn van Driesten presided over pit and stage with authority and drew music of power, delicacy and energy from his select band.

Little's latest opera, JFK, premieres in Fort Worth next month and, based on the experience of Dog Days, expectations are high.

****1