New York’s Experiments in Opera opened its tenth anniversary season with a production necessarily delayed from 2020 with a one-night presentation Rainbird, a promising new work composed by the organization’s co-founder and executive director, Aaron Siegel, directed and with a libretto by Mallory Catlett. Based on Yellow Flowers by novelist Janet Frame, Rainbird tells the tale of its namesake protagonist, who is killed when he’s struck by a car. He inexplicably awakens in the morgue, however, and discovers his coming back to life to be a bigger problem than dying in the first place. 

The tale, presented more or less as a concert version at Roulette in Brooklyn on 7th October, progressed with an odd lack of drama. Soprano Gelsey Bell, as the dead man’s wife, instilled a natural and very human spirit into the role of the widow more troubled than grieving. The decidedly formal Jeffrey Gavett was well cast (with no intended backhanded compliment) as the dead man. His pitch-perfect baritone (with a respectable upper register) made his duets with Bell ring with perfection. 

Siegel’s often spare music at times became downright harrowing – as when reduced to Bell and Sae Hashimoto’s vibraphone through-line – and could swell to unexpected dramatic heights with little notice. A triple aria like a modernist Verdi was especially memorable and a solo given to Katie Geissinger (a longtime member of Meredith Monk’s ensembles) unfolded with powerful beauty. 

The small onstage ensemble (violin/ukulele, keyboard/toy piano and percussion) achieved a remarkable fullness. Passages seemed to draw distinctly from folk music from the British Isles (which, of course, also informed the populist music of Frame’s New Zealand and Siegel’s United States), while other parts echoed Robert Ashley’s text driven operas and New York minimalist repetitions. Through Siegel’s fine writing, though, the sections were diverse without being disparate. 

The production at Roulette was less than perfect. Recurring microphone noises were distracting, as were the occasional atmospheric video projections, which seemed mostly to break the continuity. Staging certainly would have helped. Supertitles, on occasion, would have as well. It’s a strange enough story that giving the audience a little help wouldn’t have been out of line. But Rainbird deserves, like its understated hero, to rise again, this time in a fully staged production.