New music has played an outsized role in Opera Philadelphia’s recent history, and that spirit of creation has followed the company into the digital space. Tyshawn Sorey’s Save the Boys, a twenty-minute aria for voice and piano that falls somewhere between monodrama and tone poem, is the first of four new commissions from young composers that will debut on the Opera Philadelphia Channel over the course of the spring. Working from a poem by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Sorey creates a stirring lament that feels timeless and timely.

John Holiday
© Opera Philadelphia

Sorey clearly works well with poets. He crafted Cycles of My Being, also premiered by Opera Philadelphia, with Terrance Hayes, his fellow MacArthur “genius grant” recipient. But rather than collaborating with a living artist, here he applies his musical vision to a text written in 1887. The result is surprisingly seamless. Sorey composes in a lean, distinctive language – every note counts, and the choice to linger on the sustaining pedal to shade a corresponding word speaks volumes. Pianist Grant Loehnig understands the composer’s musical drive, asserting himself when the music calls for it, and making some of the choices sound almost improvisational.

Vocal duties fall to countertenor John Holiday, whose rich timbre wraps around music like a sheath of velvet. This is a distinctive voice, beautiful on its own terms, but perhaps slightly more opulent than the piece calls for. Some words are obscured, and sometimes Holiday seems to be privileging the purity of the line rather than communicating a deeper meaning of the text. Harper was an abolitionist and suffragist; the speaker of her poem, felled by demons and despair, implores the next generation to “save the boys from my sad fate”. The text’s darkness blends intriguingly with a glimmer of hope, as the speaker holds out hope for a brighter future – one that would exist whether or not she is alive to experience it. The relevance and connection to contemporary events adds another dimension of meaning. I would have liked more awareness of that in Holiday’s delivery.

Grant Loehnig
© Opera Philadelphia

The visual presentation is similarly flat. Filmed at Rittenhouse Soundwords, a recording studio in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, the setting could pass for a contemporary urban loft, with stylish exposed brick and funky rugs covering the floor. No doubt due to social distancing guidelines, Holiday and Loehnig are placed a fair space apart, and neither does much to suggest communication across the divide. They follow each other well musically, but that’s only half the battle in a production like this. I’ll be interested to see how these commissions evolve in the coming weeks, when works by Courtney Bryan, Angélica Negrón and Caroline Shaw debut.

This performance was reviewed from the Opera Philadelphia Channel video stream