Proving Up is a new opera from Opera Omaha written by Missy Mazzoli (music) and Royce Vavrek (libretto). Wednesday the 26th marked its New York premiere (a second performance on Friday the 28th is already sold out).
(Your humble correspondent had never seen an opera in his life before tonight, so if you thought this was the greatest thing since sliced avocado, chalk it up to that.)
Kicking off the Miller Theatre’s 30th season is Proving Up, a dark new opera centered on the Zegner family’s hardships and efforts to get a deed to their land under the Homestead Act in post-Civil War Nebraska. After five brutal years, and the deaths of the two Zegner girls (played by Abigail Nims and Cree Carrico), the rumor comes out that a federal inspector is coming to hand out grants. the family is desperate to finally “prove up” and firmly establish themselves in their new, western home. However, those seeking land must meet the Homestead Act’s strict requirements first- the main issue for many poor farmers in the rural hinterland being the requirement that every house must have a glass window. (Spoilers ahead.)
This the Zegners have, thanks to Johannes (AKA Pa, played by John Moore) and their neighbors, the Yotherses, who “proved up” and got their land deed the previous year. However, the Yotherses then mysteriously vanish, leaving no trace except for a field of “queer little trees” that are variously described as looking like crosses, ivory, or human bones (cheerful!). Pa takes their window, since they’re not using it. In the present, hearing rumors of an approaching inspector, the Zegners hatch a scheme to share the window with their neighbors so everyone can prove up. Miles (played by Michael Slattery) is forced to act as the window’s courier after older brother Peter (played by Sam Shapiro) injures himself and has to be tended to by Ma (played by Talise Trevigne). His dead sisters float around, generally acting creepy.
Ma then decides to pray and exhume her dead daughters’ corpses for a quick cuddle (…yep), and the next day Miles goes to take the window to their neighbors. His ghost sisters and/or a freak blizzard proceed to fuck that up, leaving him stuck with the window, which the dirty, heavily armed man who promptly shows up (played by Andrew Harris) is interested in taking. Miles is not on board, but the guy tells him he knows the window was stolen, and that he’s apparently also planted some freaky white zombie alien ghost trees on his land. (The sisters are floating around being creepy still, occasionally blowing into harmonicas or singing in annoying distorted voices.) Then Miles gets tied up, strangled, and waterboarded with milk before the robber goes to the Zegner place. Everyone thinks it’s Miles coming back, but then they realize it isn’t and that he’s dead (oops). The guy shoots Peter, who dies, and then gives Pa his hat and gun before leaving. The sinister dwarf trees are never explained.
The opera kept a distinctly sinister atmosphere going throughout, even during the more upbeat scenes where the family is singing about how great America and the Homestead Act are, or where Miles is having fun riding his horse. The orchestra (who, incidentally, are the first to use the Miller Theatre’s orchestra pit in a decade) revisited auditory themes and cues anyone who’s seen a horror movie will immediately recognize, and the ghost sisters running around in long white dresses, singing creepily also helped. The darkness got seriously dialed up around Part Three during Ma’s solo prayer/mourning song: the exhumation of the sisters’ corpses was quite shocking, and the rather frightening mannequins that laid there for the rest of the performance would have made even the most upbeat comedy a little uncomfortable.
I thought the lighting was solid, though I didn’t love it when blinding yellow floodlights were directed straight into the audience’s eyes at one point. The set was quite simple and unfussy, not really adding or subtracting a ton.
In terms of voices, everyone was impressive, but Talise Trevigne (Ma) stood out above all the others. The woman has PIPES like I’ve never heard in my damn life! (She got nominated for a Grammy in 2016, and you can tell why- I thought she was going to bring the building down or blow out the windows at a couple points.) I wanted Sam Shapiro’s character to get a little more airtime before ending up at the wrong end of a rifle, but I guess we don’t always get what we want.
Overall, while it had its interesting and impressive moments, I found Proving Up somewhat unsatisfying. There’s a TON of build-up and hinting at dark, supernatural forces being at play- the disappearance of the Yotherses, the death of the girls, the drought-resistant alien bone trees, the freak blizzard, the random guy with a dark past appearing out of the snow, ghosts in long white horror movie dresses dancing around and cackling and blowing on harmonicas, corpses being exhumed and snuggled with… It builds and builds a sense of dread that something awful is going to happen, and the synopsis in the program seems to hint similarly. But at the end of the opera, very little actually happens, and even less is properly explained or understood.
Proving Up was either highbrow enough to be somewhat inaccessible to newcomers to opera or simply bit off a lot of plot and intrigue that it wasn’t really prepared to chew. (I heard another audience member echo my thoughts in asking “sooo… what just happened?” after the performance ended, and a standing ovation was distinctly lacking, as one might’ve perhaps expected for a new show’s NYC premiere and the opening of the Miller’s 30th season).
If anyone reading this has tickets to the Friday show, don’t expect the ride of your life, but you’ll probably have a good enough time. Maybe go to dinner before, or a party after, or both.
this makes me excited for Halloween via Miller Theatre