Elena tries to comfort Victor in Buried Alive, which based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story “The Premature Burial.” Fargo-Moorehead Opera
Elena tries to comfort Victor in Buried Alive, which based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story “The Premature Burial.” Fargo-Moorehead Opera

Arts & Culture

Opera ‘Embedded’ deals with issues of ageism, sexism

By Punch Shaw

Special to the Star-Telegram

April 21, 2016 02:47 PM

What really scares you?

That was the central question put before the creators of Buried Alive/Embedded, two new, one-act operas based on Edgar Allan Poe stories, which will receive their regional premieres at Scott Theatre beginning Sunday as part of Fort Worth Opera’s 2016 festival.

For the female librettist of Embedded, the answer was not the stuff of blockbuster horror films but a topic with life-altering implications, nonetheless: “As a woman, sexism and ageism scare me,” Deborah Brevoort said.

With that guiding principle, Brevoort hit upon the idea of bringing Poe into a modern-day television newsroom.

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Using Poe’s story “The Cask of Amontillado” as a starting point, Brevoort built her libretto around an aging newswoman who is threatened by the hiring of a younger, more attractive reporter. In a bid to save her position, she becomes involved in a story about terrorism that finds her “embedded” with the terrorists in the same way journalists are sometimes embedded with military units.

“The opera takes an unexpected twist and ends with a moment of triumph in face of death,” Fort Worth Opera’s description of the work says.

Caroline Worra sings the role of the older news anchor, while Maren Weinberger plays her younger rival.

“It’s very real for me to come into playing this role,” Worra said, “and certainly all the challenges of feeling like, you know, there’s the new young singer coming in and taking over ... and combined with the idea of terrorism. This particular opera does take place in New York City.”

Buried Alive and Embedded were commissioned and developed by the New York-based American Lyric Theater in 2009 to honor the 200th anniversary of the birth of scare-master Poe.

“At first, we started out to do adaptations of Poe stories,” said Lawrence Edelson, the American Lyric founder and the director for Buried Alive. “But then we moved beyond that to think in terms of what would Poe write if he was alive today?

“We wanted contemporary stories with a Poe-like flavor, which had the same sort of universal and timeless fears that Poe tapped into.”

Buried Alive is a work based on Poe’s story “The Premature Burial,” with a libretto by Quincy Long and music by Jeff Myers.

It tells the story of “a painter whose nightmares of death begin to become real,” Fort Worth Opera’s description says. “Alternating realities are juxtaposed and culminate in a final gruesome ending.”

Characters in the dark drama include a gravedigger, an undertaker and the undertaker’s assistants.

Embedded features music by Patrick Soluri and is directed by Sam Helfrich, making his FWO debut.

The two works are intended to be presented as a set (Edelson said each one runs about 40 minutes) and the same cast of six performs in both.

“They wanted us to reimagine Poe for today. They didn’t want to do one of those old Vincent Price, Victorian, red curtain Poe adaptations,” Brevoort said. “So we spent a year developing the approach and concept.”

Brevoort, who says she does not play an instrument or read music, had written plays and musicals before expanding her talents to opera in a program offered by ALT. One of her plays, The Women of Lockerbie, is especially popular in Texas and was performed by the Texas Christian University Department of Theatre in February.

She and Gerald Cohen are working together on another opera, Steal a Pencil for Me, a work Brevoort describes as a love story set against the backdrop of the Holocaust. An excerpt will be one of the pieces in Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers showcase, a presentation of excerpts from new and evolving works that has become a regular part of the festival.

Brevoort said her goal is to write in a way that will inspire her composer. “We’re in collaboration to make sure the libretto I’m writing is something that is generating big musical ideas for him. That’s the key thing.”

Embedded was presented at FWO’s first Frontiers exhibition, in 2013. It has been staged once, by the Fargo-Moorhead Opera in 2014, and Brevoort said she liked what she saw.

“It has a whole style and whole staging that I never imagined. And, frankly, what they are doing is better than what I imagined in my head,” she said. “You understand things about your work that you had not even seen before [when seeing the initial productions]. That is the thrilling part of the experience.”

Worra, a member of the cast of Glory Denied, which the FWO presented as part of its 2013 festival, said she also enjoys the performing challenges offered by contemporary works in particular.

“Singing new operas is my favorite thing to do,” she said. “There is always an excited energy in the room. And I get a special joy out of taking an audience on a ride they have never been on. I love the challenge of some of the new and difficult music and making that so that it doesn’t sound difficult for the audience.

“I think [works like this one] take every one of our skills. It is all the years of bel canto training that we’ve all done, combined with all of our years of learning how to read difficult music, combined with everyone’s skills for acting.”

Edelson, who directed FWO’s presentation of Philip Glass’s Hydrogen Jukebox in 2011, said presenting new works such as Buried Alive/Embedded is not just an admirable thing for opera companies to do, it is a duty.

“… Every company has an obligation to do contemporary opera. That is what keeps opera alive,” he said. “And I think this company is doing a great job of honoring tradition while also looking ahead at what opera can be in the 21st century and beyond.”

Buried Alive/Embedded

  • 2 p.m. Sunday, April 30 and May 7; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Friday and May 3
  • Scott Theatre at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, 3505 W. Lancaster Ave.
  • $17-$75
  • 817-731-0726; www.fwopera.org