Playing through Sunday at the Little Theater on the grounds of the SoBe Institute of the Arts in Miami Beach is an hourlong exploration of the fault line between modernity and madness, served up in operatic style by the institute’s founder, Carson Kievman.
Fairy Tales: Songs of the Dandelion Woman is a two-person chamber opera that has been 20 years in the making, though its origins go back further than that.
“The original idea came for this in the late 1970s, when I was living in an apartment in New York, in the Village,” said Kievman, who wrote in those days for Joseph Papp and his New York Shakespeare Festival and Public Theater. “And there was a woman who moved into the building, and she was beautiful. Very elegant and very fashionable. And I watched her over time transform until she looked like a bag lady.
“So I got the idea of this reverse Cinderella transformation. But instead of turning into a bag lady, the Dandelion Woman, who does have some form of dementia, has more of a spiritual intoxication,” he said.
The opera, with libretto and music by Kievman, has to do with two lives: A woman already in the throes of an unreality, and a very sane bank examiner who ends up also losing touch with the real world when the woman’s situation leads him to some troubling truths about himself. Originally, a workshop version of the piece had been a monodrama for the demented woman, but Kievman said the show was missing an observer who could put the action into context.
“So I made up this story about a bank examiner who comes to see if she’s capable of handling her affairs, and he basically follows her down the rabbit hole,” Kievman said.
The opera stars soprano Meagan Brus as the Dandelion Woman, and baritone Kenneth Mattice as the bank examiner. Brus and Mattice were Ophelia and Hamlet in Kievman’s recent revival of his long-delayed setting of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Dandelion Woman is directed by the veteran Jeffrey Marc Buchman, a longtime contributor to the Florida Grand Opera whose productions have included a fine mounting of Verdi’s Rigoletto. Music direction is by Mary Adelyn Kauffman, sets are by Sean McClelland, Patrick Tennent handles the lighting and Camilla Haith the costumes.
Staging operas at SoBe’s Little Theater is challenging because it is a small black box without wing or fly space. Critical to this production is the work of Alain Lores, who leads a four-person team of projection designers who have used today’s remarkable technology to bring the visions of the Dandelion Woman to life.
The opera is designed so that the set comes right through the audience, as a hallway for the apartment building where the woman lives, and the set “becomes, essentially, a screen” for the animations, which fill in all the imaginary places that the black box can’t provide.
“Necessity is the mother of invention here. We can’t go from different scenes, and we can’t go to different rooms, and we can’t create things through physical set changes, so the whole thing’s animated,” he said.
That proves ideal for illustrating the fantasies in the woman’s head, such as when she sees a cloud of butterflies come out of a bunch of flowers, an effect that before technological advances would be almost impossible to do on a stage.
And then there are the glowing objects.
“There’s one point where you’re in her living room, and then when she starts to go into one of these states, everything that’s in the living room — the painting, the door, the window — becomes luminous and starts flickering,” Kievman said. “And everything around it darkens, so you have these little images that bring you to another world all of a sudden.
“It’s amazing, and they did such a great job, and (Buchman) did such a great job, of bringing this vision to life exactly the way I wanted it to be,” he said.
Musically, the opera also takes advantage of rapid shifts in tone and mood, as a perusal of the score indicates. At one point, the music summons up a 1950s sitcom; in others it chugs away in thoroughly modernistic style; at others there is a strong flavor of jazz.
“I think you’ll find that the music transforms, too. Musical ideas are brought back in a different context,” he said.
Musical director Kauffman’s eight-piece band (piano quartet, flute, clarinet and two percussionists) is situated on risers at the back of the stage rather than up front where a pit would be. Kievman said the ensemble consists of professionals, New World Symphony players and doctoral students at the University of Miami. “They’re all really good musicians,” he said.
The vocal lines for both singers are exceedingly demanding, which makes the performances by Brus and Mattice something of a tour de force.
“They are both phenomenal,” Kievman said. “(Brus) just has it. The thing about her is that she not only has the notes and the vocal quality, she is a great actress. That’s why I went out of my way to bring them here. You had to have great acting, especially in such an intimate space. It’s cinematic, in a way.”
The opera will be videotaped this week, and the performance ultimately made available on YouTube. But Kievman hopes it can travel elsewhere, partly because he sees one of the messages of the work to be something that “rings a bell for a lot of people.”
“The world is hard, and it really takes its toll on people,” Kievman said. “And sometimes it’s impossible to negotiate the insanity of the world. Some people can’t manage, and they end up losing it.”
Kievman also hopes to get some operatic newbies to SoBe Arts to check out the show, saying the audience response at the preview performance last week was promising.
“Even if you don’t like opera, you’re going to dig this, because of the production values. It’s just great theater,” he said.
Fairy Tales: Songs of the Dandelion Woman is showing at 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the Little Stage Theater off Washington Avenue, near the Miami Beach Convention Center. Tickets are $25, with student and senior tickets at $15. Call 305-674-9220 or visit www.sobearts.org.