ITHACA, NY – The Orkney Islands off the northeast coast of Scotland provide an evocative setting for an original opera, “We Wear the Sea Like a Coat.” The five performances, unfortunately brief, recently marked the world premiere of this collaboration between Opera Ithaca and the music and theater departments of Ithaca College.
The mesmerizing music was written by IC music teacher Sally Lamb McCune, with Yvonne Gray and Rachel Lampert writing the libretto. Opera Ithaca Artistic Director Benjamin Robinson staged the work, and IC music teacher Christopher Zemliauskas conducted the excellent 25-student orchestra.
Ithaca College’s main theater was transformed by a haunting set (the inspiring work of senior Rebecca Gottbetter) – a cave-like setting of looming boulders, with piles of rocks moving against an endless sea sky . Throughout, suggestive lighting design by senior Keegan Webber echoed the moods of the music. Two intimate interiors have also crept in: a lively pub, The Brig, with live musicians, and a simple, warm cottage for the young American couple who landed in this faraway place.
Sara is a scientist on assignment for an oceanographic institute, while her husband Jonathan, an untenured professor, hopes to work on his writing. Some tension exists, as he looks forward to starting a family while she doubts it’s a good decision. Sara is work-oriented; Jonathan is more exploratory, open to discovering the mysteries of the island and the culture.
They are gradually accepted by most locals, until Sara’s institute is bought by Hallex International, an oil giant (echo of Halliburton). External development has precipitated climate change on the islands, endangering land, archaeological sites and even local fishermen. The couple’s personal drama seems small in the shadow of the environmental struggle, and the narrative ultimately offers only one assurance: the inevitability of change.
The interactions of the couple and the townspeople are linked to the appearances of three terns, which preside over the changing destiny of Orkney and affirm the inevitable domination of nature. The terns – Anchal Indu Dhir, Mayavati Prabhaker and Athena Rajnai – are fabulously dressed in gauzy dark fabrics with feathered shoulder pads (great costumes throughout by Hannah Sotnek). Their aerial movements are choreographed by Jeanne Goddard, who also shapes the movements of the ocean (women wearing iridescent blue gauzes). The terns liven up the emotional line (although they might appear a little less often), but the ocean waves (or are they shapeshifting selkies?) look too whimsical, cartoonish.
Interestingly, the terns’ black-billed masks are repeated by those of the entire cast (who are wisely masked for health purposes) — further suggesting the avian and human connection on these islands. Surprisingly, the masks do not significantly impede the vocals, and the overtitles account for the rare instances of unclear phrasing.
The singing in this production was strong, matched by the performance of the performers: Elena Galván and Dann Coakwell as an American couple; Steven Stull as the charming and laid-back local historian; and Mariya Kaganskaya as Rowan, the county’s welcoming archaeologist. (Every other night, IC students Sofia Medaglia cast Sara and Madison Hoerbelt as Rowan.) Fisherman Charlie (Nicholas Capodilupo) is a quietly imposing presence.
The practical and poetic mixture of this opera often succeeds, but not always. The context and location are absorbing, the ancient sites suggesting thousands of years of human effort and desire. It reminds us that our past, like the future, is shrouded in mystery. Jonathan is drawn to the intrinsic rhythms of the earth and the Orcadians who live in harmony with it. And McCune’s score, particularly in its use of woodwinds, captures that spirit, as does the song of the terns.
The libretto is what varies in effectiveness: sometimes lyrical and expressive, sometimes explanatory and prosaic. The theme of humans despoiling nature is not new, but this particular setting is fresh. Certain plot elements give pause, however: the duet between Jonathan and Rowan is so exquisite, their connection so deep, that it seemed like a romantic attachment was building. Most concerning, the opera’s central tragic moment (which only occurs due to a complete lack of common sense) is swept away too quickly by an upbeat coda many years later.
Emotionally and intellectually, one can’t help but feel a bit shaken – but there’s a lot of beautiful and admirable stuff about this imaginative new work.
Barbara Adams, regional arts journalist, teaches writing at Ithaca College.