Rachel J. Peters’ “Wild Beast” Premieres at Oberlin Jan. 29-Feb. 2

January 20, 2020

Erich Burnett

a shadowy girl walks between three prairie dogs and a mermaid in a jar
Photo credit: image by Steven Mentzer

Darkly witty opera is the first created through the Oberlin Opera Commissioning Program.

Every year in January, Oberlin Opera Theater turns its focus from beloved works of the opera canon to modern creations—and their often timely, sometimes unpredictable themes.

This year, audiences will be treated to a mermaid in a jar, singing chicken pox, prairie dog taxidermy, and a score inspired by popular—and occasionally peculiar—music of the last century. All of it is served up amid the backdrop of a young girl’s struggle with the family strife that suffocates her.

Rachel J. Peters’ The Wild Beast of the Bungalow makes its world premiere in four free performances beginning Wednesday, January 29, and concluding Sunday, February 2. In between are additional shows on Friday, January 31, and Saturday, February 1.

All performances begin at 7:30 p.m. in Warner Concert Hall (77 W. College St.). A talk-back session, featuring members of the artistic team, will take place after each performance.

Though new to the stage this month, Wild Beast has been gestating—to borrow Peters’ term—since 2008, when librettist Royce Vavrek suggested they team up to write an opera based on Canadian writer Sheila Heti’s story “Mermaid in the Jar,” which explores the cruel possessiveness of a young girl and her unusual pet.

“I said, ‘Why don’t we try a song first, because opera is such a commitment,’” Peters recalls telling Vavrek half-jokingly. “So we tried that, and it worked!”

Almost a dozen years later, the mermaid resurfaces as the first of three short pieces that make up Wild Beast, each of them set in the bedroom of that 11-year-old girl. In “Mermaid in the Jar,” she begins a reign of terror over her most unwelcome living gift. In “Prairie Dogs,” she “divorces” her real parents and creates her own taxidermied prairie dog family, only to find that they are not the affectionate substitutes she’d hoped for. Finally, in “Fine and Dandy,” she is quarantined in her room, facing forces she cannot control: the Fine and Dandies—a barbershop quartet of chicken pox—and her mother’s own ’60s-style girl group of illness, the Shingles.

Of course, there is more at play than mere absurdity.

“It’s a fantastic exploration of her imagination in the shadow of her parents’ dissolving marriage,” says Wild Beast director Christopher Mirto, an assistant professor of opera theater at Oberlin.

“There are some incredibly funny moments—with singing prairie dogs and chicken pox, you can’t go wrong—but there are certainly dark themes. It’s a piece about growing up, it’s about learning your parents are people, and it’s about learning about yourself. It’s gritty and real, but it doesn’t take itself so seriously that there aren’t a couple of really good laughs.”

The Wild Beast of the Bungalow features an all-student cast and a 12-piece chamber ensemble, under the direction of Joseph Hodge. Mirto describes Peters’ score as quirky, fun, and musically all over the map.

“It traverses genres, with Tiny Tim references, Shirelles references, and swing and dance music,” he says. “It has a lot of musical theater influences, and it’s all pretty unexpected. You never quite know what’s going to come next.”

Wild Beast is the first production to reach the stage in conjunction with the newly christened Oberlin Opera Commissioning Program, which is dedicated to fostering nascent works from conception to completion. While Wild Beast has been in progress between Peters and Vavrek for years, future projects presented through the Opera Commissioning Program will be fully realized on campus over the course of multiple years and through regular interaction with Oberlin students.

The next project to enter the pipeline begins in fall 2020 and will debut in early 2023. At the same time, existing works will be prepared for production in early 2021 and 2022. Each year, the tandem productions in progress will result in two separate composer-librettist teams interacting with students on campus.

The Opera Commissioning Program was made possible with support from Elizabeth and Justus ’71 Schlichting, who are avid commissioners of new music. The Schlichtings’ passion was a natural fit for Oberlin’s winter-term stage: Over the past two years, Mirto has directed winter-term productions of Angel's Bone, the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera by Oberlin Conservatory alumna Du Yun ’01, and Proving Up by Missy Mazzoli. Vavrek was the librettist for both works, and both productions involved extensive interaction between the creative team and cast.

In early September, Peters made the first of several trips to Oberlin for a week of workshopping the piece with a student cast and crew. Peters has returned in January, along with Vavrek, as the production draws nearer to opening night.

They will participate in one of the talk-back sessions slated to take place after each performance.

The Wild Beast of the Bungalow is presented in conjunction with the 2020 New Opera Works {NOW] Fest and Cleveland Opera Theater, which sponsors the January 29 performance.

Admission to all performances is free, but online reservations are required. For information call 800-371-0178 or email cts@oberlin.edu.

Oberlin Opera Theater returns to the stage in March with four performances of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte.

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