Fort Worth Opera Festival is presenting one of the harsher, darker, more daring chamber operas ever staged in North Texas. Dog Days is set after both war and disaster have ravaged America. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports one of the only appealing humans left onstage is a man who’s decided, in this wretched world, it’s better to be a dog.
Dog Days is a survivalist’s nightmare.
Something has gone horribly wrong in the outside world, and a bitter, dysfunctional family is holed up in an isolated house. Dad (James Bobick) has a hunting rifle but can find no animals left to kill for food. The family members — father, mother, two brothers, a younger sister — are all resentful and sullen, but then, they’re barely fending off starvation. Their only food comes from the rare ration crate dropped by a passing Army helicopter.
In an unusual act of kindness, the young daughter, Lisa (Lauren Worsham), befriends a shabby, long-haired man who scrounges for scraps in their garbage. He’s not simply homeless. He’s dressed like — and acts like — a dog. Lisa warns him away. She sings, almost shouts, “Dad’ll be back soon / His hunting never lasts long / He gets frustrated, discouraged. / Get out of here! You’re asking for it!”
So whose idea was it that this cheery scenario would make a fabulous night at the opera?
Composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek both laugh. “Well,” says Little, “I first encountered the story in a film version by a film maker named Ellie Lee.” The 2001 film short was adapted from the story, “Flying Leap,” by Judy Budnitz.
“But I didn’t necessarily know that it’d make a good opera at the time,” Little continues. “I just thought it was really interesting and really moving. So it just sort of stuck with me as a work of art that I really liked.”
Little and Vavrek workshopped a scene from the opera as an experiment — their first collaboration. They’ve now created eight works together — including next season’s JFK for Fort Worth Opera — so, as Vavrek notes, it would seem to have been a successful experiment. Peak Performances, a cultural series at Montclair State University in New Jersey, commissioned them for the complete version of Dog Days.
That 2012 production — directed by Robert Woodruff of the Yale School of Drama and hundreds of productions for places like Lincoln Center, American Repertory Theatre, the Spoleto Festival and the San Francisco Opera — got raves, including a ‘top 10 operas of the year’ listing from The New York Times. It’s that production — cast, music ensemble and creative team — that’s come to the Scott Theatre (and will soon head for LA.) Darren Woods, general director of the Fort Worth Opera, saw it in New Jersey and promptly approached producer Beth Morrison about bringing it here.
Even Woods admits Dog Days can be rough going for audience members. There are obscenities, bloodshed and a nude dead body. And those aren’t even the worst things in this dog-eat-dog world. But Woods says, when he first saw Dog Days, he knew it was unlike any other opera: “It’s one of those rare things when you said, ‘I am so incredibly happy that I came to see this.’
“But I did need to go to a bar right after that.”
Dog Days doesn’t really sound like most other operas, either. Little draws from many styles (he and Vavrek had just seen David Allan Coe at Billy Bob’s). But he has a background as an avant-garde rock drummer. The chamber ensemble that plays in Dog Days is essentially Little’s own band, Newspeak, fleshed out here with more strings and percussion. One critic dubbed the band’s sound “punk classical” — and if you can imagine a jabbing, jarring minimalism with odd shifts into lyrical arias, heavy on the percussion and long, piercing sustains, then you’re in the general vicinity.
“You know, I grew up really interested in heavy metal,” Little says. “I’m still really interested in drone metal. And as a dramatic composer, you’re really serving the drama. So the characters you’re working with will really direct the sound world.”
The sound world in Dog Days is not all bleak. There are moments of beautiful music and dark humor. When Lisa looks in a mirror, she finds there’s a twisted upside to starving to death: She’s as thin as the fashion models she’s admired. “Hello there, beautiful!” she trills — in a remarkable aria that has her holding an illuminated mirror while her giant, rapt face is projected above.
But the strangest thing in Dog Days remains the dog-man himself — nicknamed ‘Prince’ by Lisa. He may be an opera character but he never speaks, never sings. Yet in a show about humanity reduced to its lowest limits, he looms large. John Kelly plays the dog-man and must give him a character entirely through movement. Kelly is a celebrated New York performance artist who’s created award-winning solo works (The Escape Artist), collaborated with composers like Laurie Anderson and David del Tredici and even managed to work on ‘side projects,’ as he calls them, including James Joyce’s The Dead on Broadway and Dog Days.
Performing Dog Days is exhausting, Kelly reports. “We’ve talked about this backstage. The singers are already singing their asses off, and when I appear, it’s like a sprint, these concentrated movements. I have five or six sprints. But beyond that,” he adds — given the entire atmosphere of reduced and brutalized humanity — “there’s this exhaustion on a primal level.”
In fact, it’s as if Prince has decided, everything has sunk too low. He’s simply renounced being human. Yet in doing that, he seems even more human, certainly more decent, than the quarreling, petty family members or the earth-destroying military outside.
“Well, for sure,” says Kelly. “But I try to be literal up to a point and then I have to let it go. For him, I decided this reality of functioning as a dog-man is a survival mechanism. He’s low to the ground, he can blend in, he’s covered in fur and fabric.
“He’s a survivor.”
But that’s the central question Dog Days asks: Is survival enough – to remain a human being?