Six Characters Search for a House Band in Café Bufféposted on September 15th, 2009 by Alan Lockwood
For the world premiere of Café Buffé (Sept. 10), Newband and conductor Paul Hostetter presented composer Dean Drummond’s one-act opera in a concert reading. The immediate issue was, with a stage full of performers and no staging, would it be a case of a competition in search of a playing field—a café dinner, as it were, awaiting its sauce? The delicious part became how, aside from the musical pleasures Drummond presents in the piece, the energetic reading stirred images of what may hit the stage one day, given the means and a sympathetic director to flesh out the vision.
With a resolutely loopy libretto by Charles Bernstein—the acclaimed poet also wrote Shadowtime, the Brian Ferneyhough opera featured at Lincoln Center Festival in 2005—Drummond scored Café Buffé for almost a dozen traditional instruments and about the same number of percussionists at a battery of unique Harry Partch instruments. Lacking a stage language and mise-en-scène, the methodical, early development could have been a slow go, but Drummond’s preparatory remarks gave adequate sense of the scene. And the Partch instruments possess tart, mysterious sonics that infused the opera, then rose to a banshee wail for the concluding antics.
Farcical and bemused, Café Buffé hinged far less on plot or character exposition than on a dissection of music theater itself. The café denizens, as they journey to inspired nonsense, were confronted by the ensemble that accompanied their arias and songs. As baritone Daniel Keeling oriented mezzo soprano Blythe Gaissert, his first patron at the café, the “house band” repeated choral chants for water, asserting both their prominence in the scenario and in the performance itself.
As Gaissert upped her impressive guile and vocal wattage, she could’ve cupped the house in one palm. She and soprano Beth Griffith’s oddball, unhinged spirit sang duets, and Café Buffé mounted willfully to its madcap finale. Picturing the stage swirl that could be created of this hour-long romp proved entertaining. And any full production to come will be infused with the original sound world of those remarkable Partch instruments that Drummond and the Harry Partch Instrumentarium at Montclair State are both preserving and evolving.
Alan Lockwood’s piece “American Voices: Robert Ashley and New Opera” is in the Autumn ‘09 issue of PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art. His writing on music appears in Time Out New York, Musical America, the New York Sun, and other publications.