This article, by Amy Krane appeared in Opera For Youth Journal Vol. 23 No. 1 (Winter-Spring 2001) In the Works pp. 13-14.
First, the audience. Thirty-five rambunctious toddlers on a gym mat. Proud grandparents and baby siblings in arms. A busload of friends from an elder care facility.
And, on the stage, an 8-year-old's Esther courted by a 45-year-old's King Ahashveros. A child's Hegai - the ``keeper of the King's women'' - regaling her big sister's Esther on what to wear to entice the King to marry her. A grandmother's High Priest, with her grandson as crown bearer, presiding over Esther's coronation. As she administers the wedding vows, she advises Esther: ``If all this has you speechless, you needn't answer, save your voice/I'll assume that you're agreeable, because you don't really have a choice.''
If it doesn't sound like your typical evening at the opera, that's because it's not. It's the North Cambridge Family Opera, brainchild of composer, director, and producer David Bass. Bass's operas are lighthearted and irreverent, with tongue-in-cheek lyrics to humor the adult audience, and empathetic characters and a brisk story line to keep the youngest entertained.
The Coronation of Esther, Bass's second opera, is based closely on the first part of the Biblical story of Esther. The one-hour, two-act opera chronicles the banishment of Queen Vashti and selection of Esther as the new queen. Set in ancient Persia, the plot weaves multiple themes of political ambition, courtly excesses, and the triumph of Esther's personal integrity and pride in her heritage.
The opera opens in Shushan, to which King Ahashveros has just moved the seat of government of his vast Persian empire. To celebrate, the King has held a six-month long party culminating in a week-long feast for the entire population of Shushan. The King entertains the rowdy male population, while his beautiful but modest Queen Vashti entertains the women. In his wine-induced exuberance, the King boasts of Vashti's beauty to the crowd and orders her to disrobe before the men of Shushan. She refuses, and the enraged King orders Memucan, his Grand Vizier, to devise a suitable punishment. On Memucan's advice, the King orders Vashti to be irrevocably banished and all her possessions confiscated, to the astonishment and horror of the citizens of Shushan.
Some months later, Ahashveros regrets the banishment of his favorite wife and seeks to blame Memucan. Memucan suggests that a contest be held to find a replacement for Vashti. All the fairest maidens in the Persian empire are to be collected and placed under the care of Hegai, the keeper of the King's women. Each evening, Ahashveros interviews one of the candidates, until he has selected one as his queen. The King says he will let Memucan live if the plan allows him to find a woman who can replace Vashti.
Mordechai is a Jew in Shushan with political ambitions. He has raised his orphaned cousin Esther from infancy, and she is now a beautiful young woman. Although Esther has no interest in being queen, Mordechai gives her to Memucan anyway, in hopes of currying favor with the Grand Vizier and gaining access in the King's palace. Esther becomes Hegai's favorite, and when it's her turn to see the King, Hegai advises her to dress elaborately for him, as the other interviewees have done. However, Esther chooses to wear only a plain white dress. Esther's beauty and modest dress remind the King of Vashti, and he selects her to be his new queen. Esther is crowned, and all the Persians celebrate.
The music for Esther is tonal and triadic, but ranges stylistically from classical to romantic to jazz to evocations of Gilbert & Sullivan. The belted-out style and raised arms of the chorus in ``King's Gate'' is reminiscent of 70's rock (thus dating the composer, alas). Bass also tips his hat to the Persian locale of the story with Middle Eastern modalities.
Choreography by Deborah Mason and dramatic direction by Shellie Leger created enough movement on the stage to hold the audience's interest, while being simple enough for the youngest cast members. Kathy Lindsay's brightly colored costumes were well-researched and reflected the clothing of the time and place. Lighting and sets were designed by Dale Senechal, once technical director of Sarah Caldwell's Boston Opera, and built by family volunteers under his direction.
The cast of 50 was made up of an eclectic mix of professionals, amateurs, adults and children. Bass's philosophy is to let anyone who wishes to participate do so, so he created three casts of ten soloists, each of which performed on two out of the six performances held throughout the month of March. The opera calls for a chorus, as well as plenty of solo parts for both children and adults. Several of the parts, such as Hegai, can be played by either a girl or a boy, and solos vary widely from simple to challenging. This flexibility and range of difficulty enables everyone to succeed while still being challenged, and so works well for a family opera company.
The North Cambridge Family Opera (NCFO) came together in 1999 as an informal group of children and adults who gathered to sing and perform together as part of their neighborhood's annual ``open studios'' arts event. NCFO's mission is to provide adults and children the opportunity to experience and enjoy the telling of a story through song, to strengthen families, to build friendships, and to enhance relationships between generations by performing operas that are:
David Bass, the founder and musical director of the NCFO, was a prolific composer of pretentious music as a teenager and studied music at Yale, where he quickly became discouraged. He received a BS in chemistry from Yale and doctorate in chemical engineering from MIT, during which time he arranged dozens of songs for the close harmony a cappella groups at these institutions. After a 20-year hiatus from musical composition, Bass wrote the distinctly unpretentious Space Opera (see Opera for Youth Journal, Vol 22, No. 4, Summer 2000, ``In the Works'', pp. 34-36) followed by The Coronation of Esther.
CDs, vocal scores and videos of Space Opera and The Coronation of Esther are available. If you are interested in performing either of these works, CDs of the orchestral accompaniment (without vocals) are also available. Contact David Bass at:
North Cambridge Family Opera Company
23 Norris Street
Cambridge, MA 02140