One of the highlights of the New York area’s opera season was the presentation of two of Lee Hoiby’s operas — specifically, the first professional production of his 1992 one-act This Is the Rill Speaking and the New York premiere of the latest revision of his 1986 grand opera, The Tempest. Both works were presented at SUNY Purchase in late April, under the aegis of the University and American Opera Projects. Subsequently, This Is the Rill Speaking was performed in New York City’s Symphony Space. On April 26, both operas were performed, with a panel discussion occurring between performances.
Based on the play by Lanford Wilson, This Is the Rill Speaking is an opera without a traditional dramatic framework. It offers a series of vignettes of American small-town life as it was in the postwar era of the late 1940s and early ’50s. Literary and dramatic touchstones would include Winesburg Ohio, Spoon River Anthology, Our Town and Under Milkwood. The music is precious and nostalgic without being cloying, lyrical and emotional without overstatement. Hoiby’s light, exquisite scoring adds tremendously to the music’s impact. The six cast members — Abigail Fischer, Andrew Garland, Malinda Haslett, Nicole Mitchell, William Ferguson and Justin Petersen — each performed in multiple short roles. To their credit, and that of director Ned Canty, the listener managed to retain a sense of which of their characters they were enacting. Each of these young singers deserves a paragraph of praise. Suffice it to say that we can expect further great performances from them, and that the future of American opera is in good hands. The performance space at Purchase was rather small. Fortunately, scene designer Glenn Reed and lighting designer Peter West were up to the challenge, making creative use of the entire stage. Benton Hess and the AOP Orchestra provided sensitive, assured accompaniment.