Facing the music

Trap Door explores moral agency in the Iraq occupation
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Private Able runs up hard
Photo by RJ Muna

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Mini video-enhanced chamber operas seem to be the flavor of the month, at least in a certain stretch of the Mission District. Only three weeks ago, Bay Area composer Erling Wold's solo opera Mordake began its world premiere run at Shotwell Studios (as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival) with inimitable tenor John Duykers in the part of the titular medical mystery and suicide — a pampered Victorian gentleman with the seemingly sentient face of his sisterly "evil twin" pasted to the back of his head. Beautifully constructed throughout (beginning with Wold's prerecorded but generally enthralling minimalist score and Dukyers' expansively human turn as "the man who ate his family"), Mordake availed itself of an exquisite and all-encompassing video design that cunningly developed the opera's themes while allowing traditional lighting, costumes, and sets to be kept to a select minimum.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away at the Lab on 16th Street, composer-librettist Lisa Scola Prosek's Trap Door followed suit with a one-hour chamber work on the plight of a US soldier in Iraq accused of killing an unarmed civilian. Billed as a "video opera," Trap Door is in fact performed live by a cast of seven and another six musicians (including composer Prosek at the piano) but unfolds against a wall-projection (designed by filmmaker-videographer Jacob Kalousek) whose purpose is to open up and to some degree comment on action otherwise constrained by a physically tight, nontraditional stage with minimal scenic components.

Like Wold, Prosek is a gifted local composer happy to work at or near the Bay Area's new-theater fringes, and is well versed in its multimedia possibilities. Her last chamber opera, Belfagor, based on Machiavelli's satirical comedy and set to an Italian libretto, also incorporated an elaborate video-based design scheme as part of its impressive debut at the Thick House. But the results in Trap Door prove far less successful this time around.

Only part of the problem has to do with the multimedia dimension: missing Kalousek's synched video contains some arresting images and evocatively incongruous backdrops (such as the negative image of a revolving Ferris wheel overlapping one particularly dramatic scene), but others feel either less inspired or arbitrary, simultaneously being difficult to read or fully take in against the multiple surfaces at the back of the stage.

Beyond these individual elements, it's the underlying theme that proves problematic. Based on a dream of the composer's, Trap Door uses music as both vehicle and metaphor for exploring the moral agency of a hapless soldier, Private Able (Clifton Romig), who is presented with an impossible situation in which his simple human wants and patriotic dreams run up hard against the chaos, hypocrisy, corporate double-dealing, and native outrage that dwell at the bloody forefront of American empire. As promising as that may sound, it seems to have been too complex an idea to adequately develop here, at least not without falling back on overly compressed musical motifs and a kind of stiff dramatic shorthand that skirts mere caricature.

Director Jim Cave's solid staging ensures that the many swift scene changes come over gracefully. But the condensed action means that even the main character and his Iraqi counterpart — the taxi driver Omar (tenor Mark Hernandez) — have little dramatic depth, while characters like Jane the Journalist (soprano Bianca Showalter) can only come across as cartoons. The more choice aspects remain, unsurprisingly, the musical ones. Romig's smooth, rich bass meshes nicely with a set of agreeable voices, including several fairly strong duets with sopranos Maria Mikheyenko and Eliza O'Malley.

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