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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 promise.

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.
Mike Greenberg