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Sylvia: A darkly effective musing on inner turmoil

Independently produced opera can be an unwieldy beast.  Sometimes you come hoping for the cutting edge, and get something unstaged that sounds like a failed attempt at Sondheim on an out of tune piano. Sometimes representation of the action leaves far, far too much to the imagination to make showing up worthwhile. But sometimes — most often because the composer, director, and musicians have the talent and dedication to pull it off — you find something truly unique and special.  This last possibility, thankfully, was most definitely the case with the premiere of Julia Adolphe’s chamber opera Sylvia this past weekend at the Lost Studio Theatre in Hollywood.

Clocking in at just about an hour, the opera, for which Adolphe wrote the libretto as well as the music, deals with the title character undergoing psychodrama therapy to deal with sexual abuse (or was it a sexual relationship? This becomes slightly ambiguous, to the opera’s credit) as a child.  Scored for four voices and economical instrumentation — three strings, three winds, and percussion — the drama moves ahead at a steady clip, propelled by the female therapist’s proclamations that “that’s enough, now tell me about this.”  This narrative device allows the story to drop in and out of different moments of Sylvia’s life, and allows the singers to take on numerous parts as they portray different people from Sylvia’s life.  The story isn’t exactly linear, but this approach keeps it crisp, dark, effective (and affecting), and never confusing.

The music itself is extremely engaging, and serves to drive the drama well. Quite a few moments called to mind Britten’s melodic material, especially from the riverboat scene in Curlew River.  And the orchestration is rich: Adolphe gets an enormous palette out of limited instrumental means, and special effects paint an unsettling atmosphere without drawing attention to themselves. Director Maureen Husky’s backdrop of muted but colorful sheets and multi-purpose props not only set the dark but energetic mood well, but line up nicely with the amorphous roles the singers play.

Speaking of the singers, Sophie Wingland, Jessica Mirshak, Matthew Miles, and Mario Diaz-Moresco, all graduate students at USC, are absolutely all worth watching as they grow into what are sure to be successful careers.  Extra points to Matthew Miles for an extended falsetto section that would make many singers cringe.

While these first two performances sold out, you can still catch it on Sunday, April 22, at 12:30 pm at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. (Yes, that plays a role in Sylvia’s therapy too.) If you can’t make it, at least be sure to keep your ears on Julia Adolphe in the future. With this being her first foray into opera, things are looking bright.