Nashville Opera Presents the World Premiere of Three Way at TPAC January 27–29
by John Pitcher
The Client should have known he was in trouble the moment he entered the Dominatrix’s dungeon. An arrogant, willful businessman, the Client had scheduled an appointment to see the Mistress Tosca, but he found the Mistress Salome inside the dungeon instead. People who know their 20th-century opera realize Salome is one dangerous diva.
But do they know she’s also a hoot? Nashville Opera artistic director John Hoomes discovered that a few years ago when he attended an opera workshop in Fort Worth, Texas. One of the new works receiving a tryout was a one-act chamber opera called Safe Word, a surprisingly funny, lyrical piece with an improbable BDSM theme.
“I ran into John Hoomes right after the performance, and he told me he was interested in staging the opera,” recalls Safe Word composer Robert Paterson. “But he also said he was a little scared about the opera’s erotic angle. At that moment, an old lady walked up to us and said, ‘You know, I really loved that Dominatrix.’ I think John decided to do the opera right then and there.”
Safe Word is part of a triptych of one-act operas called Three Way, all of which explore modern sexual relationships in humorous yet poignant ways. Nashville Opera will present the world premiere of the entire triptych January 27–29 at TPAC’s Polk Theater. Then, in June, the production moves to New York City, where it will be staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s new Fishman Space. That event will be Nashville Opera’s second foray into the Big Apple in as many years. Hoomes’s production of the contemporary Spanish- language opera Florencia en el Amazonas was staged at Lincoln Center last summer.
Contemporary opera has become something of a passion for Hoomes in recent years. In 2012, he staged composer David Lang’s contemporary gothic opera The Difficulty of Crossing a Field to rave reviews. Later his daring production of Philip Glass’s Hydrogen Jukebox raised eyebrows with its adult themes while winning critical praise for its stylish presentation.
Three Way boasts adult themes aplenty, but Hoomes was attracted to a different quality. “I loved the humor in this work,” says Hoomes. “For whatever reason, contemporary opera tends to be deadly serious. Three Way stands out because it’s a comedy. I think of it as Sex and the City meets The Twilight Zone.”
No doubt, The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling would have loved The Companion, the first act in the triptych. Set in the near future, The Companion involves a woman’s search for a perfect lover, which she seemingly finds in a biomorphic automaton. But in the end, this high-tech sexual aid turns out to be a paranoid android, leaving the woman and her would-be human lover Dax feeling decidedly unsatisfied.
“In The Companion, the pursuit of idealized love ultimately results in an overwhelming sense of loneliness,” says baritone Wes Mason, who sings the role of Dax, the android Joe’s tech-support agent.
Surely the opera’s most overtly funny act is Safe Word, which one might describe as Fifty Shades of Grey meets The Carol Burnett Show. How else would you describe a Dominatrix in thigh-high leather boots who goes to town on a Client dressed in drag, calling himself Polly Puddlepanties? Loneliness is again a subtext, with genuine intimacy replaced by fetish and fantasy.
The final act, Masquerade, is set at a swingers’ party hosted by an online community called the Pleasure Pilgrims. This piece, which features a large ensemble cast, is filled with the sort of nuance and breezy innuendo that one might find in a Mozart-Da Ponte opera.
Three Way has at least one other thing in common with the Mozart-Da Ponte tradition, namely a heightened sense of lyricism. Paterson and his librettist, David Cote, had little interest in writing the sort of experimental melodies often heard in contemporary opera. They preferred to compose old-school arias.
“Ultimately, we decided to let the content of the story dictate the form of the music,” says Cote. “And in a work like Three Way, we decided it’s OK for the music to often sound funny.”
The Nashville Opera will present the world premiere of Three Way at TPAC, January 27 through 29. For more information, please visit www.nashvilleopera.org.