American Idol-style competition

A Boston Legal opera, Voir Dire, takes top spot in Opera Vista competition

A Boston Legal opera, Voir Dire, takes top spot in Opera Vista competition

News_Opera Vista_Matthew Peterson
Matthew Peterson's "Voir Dire" took first place. Meaning to "speak the truth," this "Boston Legal" courtroom opera depicts ridiculous custody battles and violent crimes, using real transcripts as inspiration.
News_Opera Vista_Alberto Demestres
Second-place winner, Alberto Garcia Demestres "Il Sequestro," aims to illustrate society's obsession with violence.
News_Opera Vista_Matthew Peterson
News_Opera Vista_Alberto Demestres

The  2011 Opera Vista Festival final round allowed four composers one last chance to make a case for their work, hoping to earn a spot in the company's 2011-2012 season. Given the popularity of Opera Vista, the work will receive great exposure.

So it wasn't surprising that this American Idol-style competition drew a curious, near-capacity crowd at the Moores School of Music looking to influence the outcome, myself included. 

The panel of judges and audience, many who were repeat visitors from the semifinal round a couple of days earlier, were already familiar with the rituals surrounding the competition, although in the final round the audience was invited to ask questions and add commentary. 

I confess that I was initially puzzled by the festival's format, which called for a repeat performance of the excerpts heard at the semifinals rather than presenting something new. Logistic considerations aside  — a different excerpt would mean doubling resources and rehearsal time — I thought it reasonable to gain a wider scope by experiencing a larger range. 

And doing so would have helped in making this seemingly impossible decision easier. For whom would I vote?

But Viswa Subbaraman, Opera Vista's artistic director, had a different idea. A second sampling of the same excerpt allowed the audience and panel to concentrate on digging deeper while gaining a better perspective of the compositional approach, becoming better acquainted with the thematic material while exploring the effectiveness of the piece, with a less-is-more philosophy. 

It worked, but I wonder why they couldn't do both.

Ultimately, it was Matthew Peterson's Voir Dire that took the first prize in the secret ballot vote of everyone present. Like his opera, Peterson appeared poised, polished and eloquent.

"I think Matthew Peterson's Voir Dire won primarily because it told a story in a very honest way, and in doing so, it touched people's heart strings," Subbaraman said. "That is also the reason I think the audience related to it."

Voir Dire, translated from old Anglo-Norman, means "to speak the truth." Peterson and librettist Jason Zencka — Voir Dire is their second collaboration — used real courtroom transcripts as the basis for the work, centered around trials Zencka witnessed while working as a crime reporter for the Stevens Point Journal in Wisconsin.

The main narrative focuses on a barbaric matricide committed by 16-year-old Jeffrey Schumacher, with vignettes of other trials, including a macaw custody dispute, a rape and arrests, with the orchestra conductor playing the role of judge. At the end, all these ancillary characters become the jury for the opera's primary storyline. 

A Boston Legal opera, Peterson's work had it all: A creative and intriguing foundation, engaging emotional content, familiar tonal language yet clearly embedded in modernism and an innovative approach while displaying an open disposition to work with constructive criticism from a stage director. His work, after all, is demanding. 

And Houston is no stranger to either courtroom drama or art that alludes to it. If Houston Grand Opera's recent production of Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking is any indication of the curiosity about  legal matters, the production has the potential to draw interest. 

Peterson, who initially addressed the audience in a composed theatrical, almost calculated and rehearsed fashion, appeared real and personable and earned my vote. But it was Spanish composer Alberto García Demestres's work that I really wanted to champion because he spoke from the heart and without any inhibitions,. He earned second place. 

"Other than the winning opera, I have to say that I would love to see Alberto García Demestres' opera, Il Sequestro staged," Subbaraman said. "He is definitely a composer with an encyclopedic knowledge of opera and I think it would give a good stage director an interesting challenge."

Much like his opera, Demestres is full of emotion.

Demestres has stronger roots in operatic tradition, utilizing almost a Straussian sound. A heart attack caused the composer to abandon a commission based on the 1,001 Arabian Nights to address issues of society's complacency with violence, real and imagined.

Il Sequestro takes place inside a child's dream, where the audience, representing a sadistic society hungry for real and brutal violence, watches a reality show. Three kidnapped women — each symbolizing a weapon against violence — must compete in the perverse games of their attacker. Two die, one lives on.

Be on the lookout for next year's festival. Peterson's Voir Dire will be the featured work, though I hope Opera Vista finds a way to also stage Il Sequestro.

It would make for an ambitious program and Opera Vista is accustomed to challenges.