UTSA Lyric Theatre
Heuser's 'Root Vegetables' -- 24-carrot fun
March 7, 2010
Like Wagner’s “Ring of the
Nibelugen,” David Heuser’s maiden opera involves a dysfunctional
family, a coveted item of jewelry, a curse, a mysterious stranger, the
lust for power and (um) booty, and an ambulatory carrot consorting with
a space alien (in Wagner, those would be the singers portraying
Siegfried and Brunnhilde, respectively).
Heuser’s “A Brief History of Root Vegetables” -- like Wagner, he wrote
both the words and the music --dispenses with the dragon and that old
bore Fricka, but compensates by adding a self-absorbed narrator,
supertitles with a mind of their own, a chorus of lawyers and lots of
laughs. And some delightful music, too.
The zany, anarchic, sometimes puerile (but what the heck?) confection
was given a highly effective premiere March 5 by the UTSA Department of
Music Lyric Theatre and Orchestra -- mostly student forces -- conducted
by Eugene Dowdy. The downtown campus’s Buena Vista Street Theatre was
packed for the opening.
Heuser's extensive oeuvre includes some wonderfully poignant and
empathetic songs, perhaps most notably a series of settings of poems by
Olga Cabral. His only prior opera was a one-act for children.
For the full-evening “Root Vegetables,” he deployed an eclectic arsenal
of styles in a colorful, energetic score. A lovely neo-Romantic
lyricism makes a few appearances, though the text pulls the rug out
from under it. Some numbers are influenced by American rhythm and
blues, Renaissance madrigals, Stravinsky and others, and some allude to
“Tristan und Isolde,” “West Side Story” and “Sesame Street,” but all
the stylistic sources are filtered through a consistent point of view.
A dozen meaty solo roles put voices on good display, and Heuser also
crafted plenty of intricate, hyperactive ensemble numbers.
The sterling baritone Chia-Wei Lee, who teaches at Trinity University,
was recruited to sing the Mysterious Stranger, the long-lost patriarch
of the family. The rest of the cast comprised UTSA students and one
recent graduate. The vocal results were variable, but the general level
was remarkably high, and a good half-dozen students showed considerable
The physical production was in good hands, too. William McCrary’s stage
direction was lively and inventive, sometimes taking on the aspect of a
three-ring circus. Stephen Montalvo’s set design of movable modules
allowed ample variety of settings and playing spaces.
“A Brief History of Root Vegetables” seems well positioned to become a
funnier, bawdier, hipper alternative to Gilbert and Sullivan as a
large-cast showcase for the voice divisions of music schools around the
country. It might be a little too funny, bawdy and hip for most
mainstream opera companies, but that’s their loss.