By JOHN DeMERS
Some years back, in one of the better self-assessments on record, Houston Grand Opera decided there really were problems with performing only works by “dead European white guys.” All kinds of problems, from the “barriers to entry” of where you perform and how much the tickets cost to what this says about millions of other lives that aren’t dead or European or white. Houston Grand Opera decided to act as though it belongs to Houston, which recently was cited as the most ethnically diverse city in America.
In addition to debuting the first-ever mariachi opera a while back, HGO moved ahead from that self-assessment to commission works that, both together and separately, reflect the many languages and skin colors of its population. To say that The Bricklayer is Iran’s “turn” is simplistic but true, since anything touching on Iran these days must reflect daily newspaper coverage of its theocratic regime, its nuclear agenda and, yes, even the youth uprisings that have attracted global attention and at least nodding support.
With music by American composer Gregory Spears and a libretto by Farnoosh Moshiri (based on her short story), The Bricklayer tells a tale that’s probably all-too-familiar among Iranian-American families. An older generation comes to Houston to live with a younger generation, which naturally enough has a still-younger generation that’s even more American. The reason: the aging parents’ son has recently been executed by firing squad as he stood against a brick wall, presumably for taking part in some act of protest. Three generations of this family have different layers and levels of suffering, and this brief (37-minute) chamber opera serves up little more than a vignette of their efforts to carry on.
Spears’ music makes only limited efforts to incorporate traditional Persian sounds into the score, at least as they connect with non-Persian ears. Occasionally, the plaintive sound of the ney makes it through, but mostly you hear familiar instruments like piano, harp and violin. What won’t be familiar to many opera-goers is the atonal, modernist quality of this music, which sidesteps ongoing melodies at any cost and sometimes seems to treat vocal line and its accompaniment as unrelated beings. Presumably they are related, at least to Spears’ way of thinking, but they don’t seem to recognize each other much.
With direction by Tara Faircloth, the story seen onstage seems merely a piece of something larger. It suggests, it evokes – but it doesn’t ever resolve. It tells you what it’s about in some often-lovely lyrics about tulips growing from the blood of young martyrs (healing from tragic loss, hope for the future, the human quest for freedom), but it doesn’t have much to say once it raises these issues.
The performances are fine, especially Christina Boosahda as Houston resident Bita, Eve Gigliotti and Jon Kolbert as her suffering parents, and Bray Wilkins as the mysterious and presumably imaginary Bricklayer who promises that someday there will be no more brick walls for children to be shot down against. But somewhere near the end of this opera’s oh-so-limited running time, we should have heard why the new generation (named Shahrzad, after ancient Persian storyteller Scheherazade) can, should and must live to preserve her family’s story of suffering and rebirth. And we might have heard that same little girl, on record early as hating to speak to her grandfather in Farsi instead of English, say something meaningful like “Grandpa, speak to me in Farsi. I don’t know why, but I love the sound of the words.”
Operas need to be more than family snapshots. So much about The Bricklayer seems to be happening before and especially after the flash.
After its HGO debut last night at the Wortham Center, the opera will be performed tonight at the Arab American Cultural & Community Center, Sunday at the Nowruz Festival at Discovery Green and Tuesday at Baker Ripley Community Center.