Companies Perform For the Love of It

By Joseph McLellan
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday , July 20, 2000 ; M02

The contrast could hardly have been greater between the two operas I attended last weekend, but they had a few things in common. Both were using the power of opera for something more than the entertainment of wealthy dilettantes. Both had prices much more affordable than what you pay at the Kennedy Center--one charged less for tickets than the cost of parking at the Kennedy Center. And both gave valuable experience to young performers, while enlarging the audience for opera.

Friday evening, in the Hartke Theatre at Catholic University, the Summer Opera Theatre gave a polished and enjoyable performance of Jacques Offenbach's witty, macabre opera "The Tales of Hoffmann."

Saturday afternoon, in the Silver Spring Artspace on Colesville Road, the Unidentified Flying Opera Company gave a performance of Lesley Choy's one-act space opera "Perfection."

There were some skilled professionals in this performance, but it was an amateur production in the best sense of the word. The supporting cast members and chorus were unpaid volunteers, some performing in public for the first time. In addition, and more importantly, all the performers and technicians, including the excellent singers in the leading roles and the internationally acclaimed pianist Carlos Cesar Rodriguez, were there because they loved what they were doing.

The Unidentified Flying Opera is a nonprofit organization serving people with special needs through the arts. Considerations of technique and style that usually preoccupy a critic seem irrelevant to this production.

The "orchestra" was a synthesizer, played by Rodriguez, that produced a remarkable variety of sounds. The costumes and scenery, home-made, showed great ingenuity.

The chorus, called "The Artspace Cosmic Choir and Ground Crew," had one member who joined in the dancing, acting and singing, from a wheelchair. Another was accompanied by a seeing-eye dog in a costume made with a pie plate and aluminum foil. Others wore bandages, but all participated with an energy and obvious enjoyment that gave depth and meaning to a statement by Lesley Choy, who not only wrote the music and libretto but also sang, acted and directed: "All of us are perfect. Accidents of nature and experience make us no less perfect, only more interesting."

"Perfection" is the name not only of the show, which was composed in 1995 for Washington Very Special Arts, but also of the story's hero, a role sung with excellent tone and an impressive flair for comic acting by tenor Peter Joshua Burroughs, who also sang in the show's premiere in 1995 at the Kennedy Center.

Perfection's name is given to him at his birth on the distant planet Yo-yo (so named for its unusual orbit). His proud parents consider him perfect in spite of various problems, most notably a speech impediment, which vanishes when he holds a gift of love--a ball made of rubber bands--given to him by a girl named M'Luna. The ball is stolen by a space pirate, Dangerous Lil, but the show comes to a happy ending, and even the villainess turns out to have her own kind of perfection.

The music is easy to enjoy and does not require operatically trained voices. It handles expertly a variety of popular forms, including blues and tango, and it is well-adapted to the story's characters and situations.

Fine performances were given not only by Burroughs but by Ana Castrelo and Sandra Nino, performers familiar from work in the "IN" Series, and by Eileen Joyner-Lewis, a singer unfamiliar to me who has a sweet, expressive voice and an engaging stage presence.

But the impression that lingers most strongly is that of the amateur performers in supporting roles and the chorus. Their enjoyment of the show was splendidly apparent and was shared by the audience.

2000 The Washington Post Company