The idea behind West Edge Opera’s Snapshot program is fairly simple: to present 15-20 minute excerpts from new chamber operas by composers and librettists currently working in the Bay Area. The excerpts are presented in concert form, minimally directed and staged, with excellent singers supported by musicians from one of San Francisco’s best chamber ensembles, Earplay. Snapshot is one of the few programs in the Bay Area that provides early notice for potential operas.

West Edge Opera's <i>Snapshots</i>
West Edge Opera's Snapshots

One of the program's virtues is that it legitimizes new work in an artform dominated by the past and conservative audiences. The sheer financial weight of producing opera precludes it presenting work that is novel and not packing at least a century’s worth of popular approval. Many opera houses will only produce new operas by high-profile composers and librettists, and then, only occasionally.

West Edge Opera, originally Berkeley Opera, is now in its 37th year, and since its name change in 2010, it has grown increasingly adventurous. Now a site-specific company, housing its main summer festival productions in abandoned buildings, West Edge has also ventured into more contemporary opera and sexier productions. Berg’s Lulu, Glass’ Hydrogen Jukebox, Ades’ Powder Her Face have nestled closely to Monteverdi’s Ulysses, Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen and Puccini’s La bohéme. And the audience has loved it, tripping across empty lots cluttered with broken bottles to fill huge derelict buildings decorated with graffiti.

In its second year, Snapshot has added a layer of legitimacy to its mission by presenting one of its performances in San Francisco’s Taube Atrium Theater, which is located in San Francisco Opera’s Diane B. Wilsey Center, a gorgeous venue with acoustics that would make even the tone deaf ecstatic.

The program presented excerpts from five new works in a riotously diverse selection, from an adaptation of the unfinished Fitzgerald novel, The Last Tycoon, to Death of a Playboy, an imaginary reenactment of Hugh Hefner’s funeral. The excerpts varied in quality, some clearly more developed than others, but each with its own virtues. Every selection was preceded by a video conversation with the composer and librettist (recorded by Jeremy Knight), in which they explained their inspiration for the piece, and divulged their musical approach.

The second half of the program was the most compelling, opening with an interrogation scene from an opera by Erling Wold based on Robert Harris’ novel, She Who Is Alive. A warlord of a futuristic world, who wants to eliminate the physical matter of human beings in order to eliminate pain and suffering, interrogates a dissident scientist. He is bent on executing her. The interrogation and its music are insistent, minimalist and the language abrupt and absurd. It’s like a scene from Harold Pinter, only the menace is spoken out loud, sung. Mezzo-soprano Molly Mahoney sang the role of the scientist, and J. Raymond Meyers the Polemarch Rorman. Jonathan Khuner, the musical director of West Edge Opera conducted.

West Edge Opera's <i>Snapshots</i>
West Edge Opera's Snapshots

Brian Rosen’s Death of a Playboy ended the program. The longest piece on the program, it was also the most developed theatrically and the most musically complex. Rosen, who is also the curator of Snapshots, had been inspired by a conversation that took place on his Facebook page after the death of Hugh Hefner. He asked why people were celebrating the Playboy mogul’s life, rather than his death. After Rosen felt compelled to write the opera, in which two former bunnies deliver memorial talks about their boss. Soprano Julia Hathaway, Miss December 2014, sings an instrumentally frisky, “All my life I wanted to be desired”. Molly Mahoney, Miss September 1995, points out to her husband, Jason Sarten, that Hefner paid $70,000 to be buried next to the body of Marilyn Monroe. In the background, Darron Flagg, as the minister, joins in a hymn with Hathaway. Mary Chun, the director of Earplay, conducted.

Of the opening three operas, Katherine Saxon’s 452 Jamestown Place held the most potential for development. She chose to write an opera about a woman with multiple personality disorder because the several personas would allow the soprano – Heidi Moss, in this case – to use a number of vocal techniques. Composer Larry London’s opera about the life of Thomas Edison, Dynamo, suffered from librettist William Smock’s rhymes, which tended to thud musically. And composer Cyrill Deaconoff and librettist David Yezzi’s The Last Tycoon, was not well served by excerpting. The excerpt suggested, nonetheless, a fine opera in the making.

****1