Most Americans are ashamed of the legacy of the Ku Klux Klan in this country and their lawless persecution of non-whites. Racism in America is not a pretty subject, and it doesn’t make for pretty opera. It does, however, make for a thought-provoking and even disturbing piece in the hands of Philadelphia’s Center City Opera Theater (CCOT). Their world premiere Slaying the Dragon composed by Michael Ching with a libretto by Ellen Frankel was inspired by a true-life event set in the early 1990s in Nebraska. There, a Grand Dragon of the KKK turned his back on bigotry and converted to Judaism before succumbing to advanced diabetes at age 42.

Swearing in a new Grand Dragon: photo by Lawrence Hicks © Center City Opera Theater 2012
Swearing in a new Grand Dragon: photo by Lawrence Hicks
© Center City Opera Theater 2012

Slaying the Dragon skews closely to that plot line, capturing an ideal segment of that story to present in an operatic work. It is a cinematic piece that opens and closes with a chilling ceremony: the swearing in of new Grand Dragons of the KKK. The big-picture message being that while one racist has reformed himself, another is being exalted in the Klan, signaling more hatred and intolerance on the horizon.

I commend CCOT for tackling such gritty subject matter. It is horrifying to be reminded that some present-day Americans revere Hitler and rally around Nazi tenets. It’s gut-wrenching to see men’s hands raised in Nazi salutes, if only onstage and when you know that they are only play-acting. And the rest of America needs to be reminded that there are hard-core, violent racists still living and working among us.

Does racism work as subject matter for a full-length opera, more specifically the conversion of one hateful Grand Dragon to a person of faith? While this production had a lot to commend it, as a complete work, it didn’t quite hit the mark. In the composer’s notes, Michael Ching asserts that opera is “at its best when used as a blunt instrument.” And yet, if the creators wield too heavy a club, who in the audience is left standing to applaud by the end of the opera? Handling this subject matter was a profound challenge from the get-go. It is difficult to present and ultimately digest high art combined with the basest of human behaviors.

The production had some technical issues presumably created by the alternate venue they had moved to, having forfeited their Prince Music Theater Home for the final weekend of performances through no fault of their own. First, their were no supertitles. Even though the opera is sung in English, when it opens with robed Klansmen singing through hoods, and because of the nature of operatic performance in general, supertitles are essential and were sorely missed. Also, the venue at the Helen Corning Ward Theater is small, and the orchestra, though proficient, simply overpowered the singers. It felt like the performers were shouting and sometimes screaming at the audience during most numbers. Yet, you didn’t know what they were saying, because there were no supertitles, which must have been as frustrating for them (not to be wholly understood) as it was for the audience.

Thankfully, the cast was up to the challenge of pushing out their voices in the space to which they were consigned. All the principal singers were strong. Tenor Christopher Lorge singing the role of the Grand Dragon Jerry Kreig showcased a powerful and beautiful spinto tenor, and I kept thinking I’d like to see him in another role that would show off his voice to better advantage. Also particularly notable were Teresa Eickel as Vera Goodman and Jason Switzer as Rabbi Nathan Goodman, who sang and acted their roles convincingly. The three victims of KKK persecution were standouts—Jody Kidwell, David Koh, and Roland Burks. In the final scene, it was jarring to see Burks as his character Reverend Masterson leading an MLK Day interfaith service but still unforgiving of Jerry Kreig, though Kreig had asked for forgiveness in an earlier scene. It was an irony, not of the character’s making, but which made the audience participation part of the show impossible for this reviewer to appreciate.

Vocally and even musically, the production was solid. The score had many interesting textures and colors. The parts of the libretto that I could understand were well crafted. Slaying the Dragon raised awareness, alarm, and a gnawing sense of dread for everyone in attendance, but didn’t quite move the audience to the extent that we are hoping to be transported anytime we see opera.

It was a valiant effort, and an important attempt in the landscape of American opera to chronicle a present-day societal blight, for which CCOT and all the collaborators of this production merit recognition and respect.

***11