Goosebumps, gasps of horror, sobs and tears. That's what operagoers will experience at the East Coast premiere of Séance on a Wet Afternoon presented by New York City Opera. It is an eerie, emotional roller coaster of a show that grips you with the force of demon possession and doesn’t let go. In fact, it captures your rapt attention with such totality, it scarcely allows the audience to breathe until the final curtain descends.

Michael Kepler, Lauren Flanigan and Bailey Grey © Carol Rosegg
Michael Kepler, Lauren Flanigan and Bailey Grey
© Carol Rosegg

Séance on a Wet Afternoon is a two-act contemporary opera with music and libretto by American composer Stephen Schwartz, whose original productions such as Godspell, Pippin, and Wicked are considered blockbusters within the annals of musical theater. ‘Séance’ is based on the novel of the same name by Mark McShane and the subsequent film version written and directed by Bryan Forbes, and is the first full-length opera Stephen Schwartz has written.

The story centers around Myra, a middle-aged psychic who is better than her reputation and wants more than anything, she sings, to be “bonafide.” However, Myra’s gifts are authentic, allowing her to be in direct contact with her dead son Arthur, age 11. It’s just that the wider world doesn’t know how gifted she really is. So, Arthur conceives of a plan for Myra to get the recognition for her supernatural talents she so craves, which involves kidnapping an innocent little girl. While Myra and her devoted husband Billy hold the girl captive, Myra will step in as a hero whose psychic abilities will lead authorities directly to the abducted girl. If that sounds like a plan destined to fail, it most certainly will fail, but that’s all that should be said about it. Unlike many well-known classic operas, the story of Séance is not widely known. It would dampen some of the thrills and chills the opera provides to say anything more specific about its plot points.

It can be said that Séance is a story of loss and of the emotional and psychological damage that the heartbreak of losing a child can wreak in an marriage. Myra’s loss of her son Arthur is too much for her to endure. So she begins forfeiting her sanity to embrace an altered reality where she believes death offers a much better and happier existence than the one she is living. She knows this because Arthur tells her death is a bright, happy state-of-being. The stakes couldn’t be higher when Myra and husband Billy embark on a plan to make Myra the next psychic celebrity. Since the opera opens with Myra conducting a séance, the show is riveting from Myra’s first quavering ghostly “ooooooh’s.”

The storyline itself is winning—suspenseful, surprising, titillating—and it’s clear from the first number that Schwartz has written an opera to serve the story and not the other way around. Each musical number deftly advances either the plot or lays out the psychological and emotional struggles each of the main characters faces. It’s a tremendous challenge to distill a full-length work of fiction into an opera of even moderate length—this one ran two-and-a-half hours. One of the most efficient contrivances is Schwartz’s use of a Greek chorus of paparazzi to encapsulate plot highlights and quickly advance the storyline while also providing a commentary on how American media stereotypically respond to human tragedies in the headlines. Schwartz doesn’t have to show us the scene of how Billy kidnaps the girl because the chorus recaps it for us. Yes, the chorus provides all these functions as well as entertainment and shards of comic relief in some powerful, well-written numbers.

And make no mistake. As someone intimately familiar with Schwartz’s musicals, I can say with confidence Séance is a bonafide opera, not an operatic-style musical. In the program notes, Schwartz recounts how his process for writing this work was completely different from that of writing a musical. Different process yielded a vastly different product. Yet, for a contemporary opera with tragic themes, it was not dissonant. Built around motifs, it was infused with musicality and paid significant attention to melody at certain times. This includes Billy’s second-act aria “You Didn’t Know Her,” which was lush and melodic, and oh-so powerful considering its sentimentality was juxtaposed against the realization of the unconscionable crime his wife Myra has just committed.

A great story, clever use of dramatic conventions, and a musical palette that was alternately lyric and dramatic all dovetailed to heighten the theatrical experience. Yet the rich experience that was Séance scarcely ended there. It was purposefully and skillfully directed by Schwartz’s son, Scott Schwartz, with lighting and technical effects calculated to ramp up the horror.

The production already has many extraordinary features working in tandem to deliver a first-rate show. All New York City opera needed to do to seal the deal was throw a stellar cast into the mix. And boy, did they! Some of the best performances were from singers making their New York City Opera debuts, including Melody Moore who played Rita Clayton, the mother of the kidnapped girl. Her soprano voice alternately soared to the ceiling and pierced our hearts like a rapier in each of her arias. The audience felt her abject hopelessness, her despondency at having lost her beloved daughter. Also making his debut with the company was boy soprano Michael Kepler Meo as the dead son Arthur. Meo’s clear tone and shimmery timbre were a marvel, but his acting was so engaging it actually induced terror. His dramatic scene to close the first act was one of the most frightening moments in live theatrical performance I’ve ever seen. As Myra’s enabling husband Billy, baritone Kim Josephson delivered a nuanced and sympathetic performance supported by masterful singing. Though not new to the New York City Opera stage, soprano Lauren Flanigan was a tour de force as psychic Myra Foster, as if the role was written for her. Only the most-skilled performer can make a character who is so flawed, who commits a truly heinous act, worthy of pity.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon is an important American work that deserves to be seen. It answers every criticism leveled at the state of opera performance today—it has the relevancy and immediacy of great straight theater. It is accessible and also grand opera at the same time. It is layered with comic and tragic elements. It is both raw and polished, owing to the exceptional production values New York City Opera delivers and an unprecedented level of vetting Schwartz sought for the work, previewing pieces and segments work over time to a variety of audiences to ensure he premiered the strongest opera possible.

Credit must go to New York City Opera for their investment in the VOX Contemporary Opera Lab which showcased excerpts of Séance in 2009. The value of this annual showcase for developing new works and providing venues for emerging productions and composers was evident in every facet of Séance on a Wet Afternoon.

Yes, Myra Foster was a bonafide psychic. And Séance on a Wet Afternoon was a bonafide thriller that you should hurry to see.