TO DAMASCUS: The World Premiere of a New Opera by Walter Braxton
A Theater/Opera Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23220
Performances: Thu, 1/18 – 7:30pm (preview); Fri, 1/19 – 7:30pm (press opening); Sat, 1/20 – 7:30pm; Sun, 1/21 – 4pm (post performance panel/talkback); Thu, 1/25 – 7:30pm; Fri, 1/26 – 7:30pm; Sat, 1/27 – 7:30pm
Ticket Prices: Tickets $15 – $40
Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org
If you’ve never seen or heard an opera, and the very thought of attending an opera sends shivers up and down your spine, you must understand that To Damascus is not your everyday opera. If you are an opera aficionado, To Damascus may be pushing the envelope over the edge (yes that’s a mixed metaphor, but so appropriate for this occasion). I think I heard someone describe Walter Braxton’s new postmodern musical as an “anti-opera,” but if you chose to use that definition, please think of it in a positive way.
What is To Damascus about? Well, it has no story in the traditional sense. But, as the title suggests, it has a deep spiritual foundation. In the New Testament, in Acts chapter 9, the Damascus Road is where Paul (then Saul) met Jesus and was converted. A Damascus Moment has come to refer to a turning point in one’s life, a sudden interruption in the day-to-day rituals that define one’s existence and often sets one on the way to living life with purpose and meaning.
There are many rituals in To Damascus. Act One begins with the five vocalists cleaning, wrapping, and packing shoes. Stacks of vintage suitcases and trunks fill the stage, and many of them hold shoes – everything from stilettos to brogans. Shoes are important when traveling. Act One ends with the cast members circling the stage in a ritual that has them assembling BLTs – yes, sandwiches. There is a toaster and a hot plate, a bag of Wonder Bread, and all the fixings. A traveler needs sustenance.
Act Three begins with water rituals: hand washing; rinsing apples; pouring water from a bottle to a glass and back again. Each act is repeated over and over, not unlike the daily rituals repeated by people with OCD tendencies. During the water rituals, there are no words, just instrumental music.
Mr. Braxton’s music is beautiful, mesmerizing. Oddly, it tends to stay on the same level, with gentle swells and rises, like the gentle hills of an urban park, rather than the rolling hills of wide open acres. A sixteen-piece orchestra was crammed onto a raised platform above the stage, filling the space with the pastoral strains of Braxton’s score – a score that, at times, was in stark contrast to the carefully choreographed postmodern confusion taking place on the stage.
In his pre-show curtain talk – which took place in the theater’s lobby, instead of inside the theater proper – Firehouse Artistic Director and the show’s Director, Joel Bassin, shared that To Damascus” is not your ordinary opera, that there is no traditional story line, and that it is best to focus on the sounds rather than the words.
Mr. Braxton takes many of his words directly from the bible. There is no libretto in the traditional sense, nothing to clue the audience as to what is happening, no synopsis as would be provided for an opera written in German. Excerpts included in the program include the words of Psalm 121 and a variety of poems and prose.
Michele Baez (soprano), Michael David Gray, and Chase Peak were the de facto lead singers, with Imani Thaniel (a VCU theater major) and Elisabeth Carlton Dowdy (a VCU Music Education graduate) in supporting roles. Ms. Thaniel’s staging sometimes kept her partially hidden from the audience; this was true whether she was positioned stage left or stage right. She was often hidden by stacks of luggage.
Ms. Baez and Mr. Gray had the most commanding voices, but the performers had little direct interaction. While they rarely looked at or communicated directly with one another, they had plenty to do, interacting with a wide and wild assortment of props that seemed to appear out of thin air. It was almost as if the director had incorporated subtle magic tricks. Mr. Braxton’s music and Mr. Bassin’s direction were a perfect fit for The Firehouse, and if some left the theater wondering what happened – at least they left relaxed rather than agitated. To Damascus does not assault the senses, but somehow amplifies them.
Leilani Fenick is the Musical Director and Vocal Coash, and Michael Knowles deftly conducted from a raised platform in a downstage corner. Rather than a set designer, To Damascus has Environmental Design by Isabel Layton, and the production team also included Lighting Design by Bill Miller and Costumes by Kathleen O’Connor.
As for Walter Braxton, he is an African-American composer born and raised in RVA. He was a child prodigy – while attending Mary Scott Elementary School, he wrote the class song. To Damascus is an opportunity to learn about and appreciate the work of a local artist who may be unknown to too many of us.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photos by Bill Sigafoos
Facebook CBS 6 News Post:
Walter Braxton was Richmond’s child prodigy – composing symphonies before he was even out of high school. A mental breakdown at age 18 ended his promising career. January 19 at 7:30pm, the Firehouse Theater presented Braxton’s opera, TO DAMASCUS, for the very first time, followed by Mark Holmberg’s story at 11.