The Odeon Theatre, nestled between War Memorial Auditorium and the Greensboro Coliseum, was the ideal intimate venue for the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Opera Theater's staging of Barnum's Bird, by Libby Larsen (b.1950). This opera was commissioned by the Library of Congress and the Odyssey Commissioning Program of the Plymouth Music series and was premiered February 1, 2002, in the Coolidge Auditorium. Like the original version of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, space limitations in that hall restricted the size of Larsen's performing forces. The four lead singers are joined onstage by an octet of "singing movement" singers; separate pit chorus is joined by a small instrumental group consisting of a flute, percussion, piano, a violin, a viola, and a cello.
According to her note to the score, Larsen became interested in Jenny Lind (the "Swedish Nightingale") and P.T. Barnum when she came across a letter from Lind to Harriet Beech Stowe while composing her choral work Seven Ghosts. Larsen became fascinated with juxtaposition of Lind, the pure art idealist, with P.T. Barnum, the pioneering marketer. Larsen's opera probes the uneasy struggle between art and entertainment using Lind and Barnum to explore America's ambiguity about pure abstract art and the marketing involved with touring artists.
With a catalog of over 200 works, Larsen is one of America's most prolific and most frequently performed composers. She loves both musical and verbal sounds and the rhythms of language, and this was evident throughout her eclectic and imaginative score for Barnum's Bird.
Tenor Andrew Owens was outstanding as a larger-than-life P.T. Barnum. He made a grand entrance down a raised runway bisecting the hall down the middle. His robust and warm timbre was attractive and even across its range. His Barnum was over-the-top, a carnie barker with dreams of grandeur and a "nose" for the next opportunity.
Natalie Fagnan sang the role of Jenny Lind with a balanced and solid soprano voice. Hers was an aptly prim and serious stage presence, all high ideals about her Art and all selfless charity for raising money for the poor children of Sweden. Her actual excerpts — "Hear Ye Israel" from Mendelssohn's Elijah, and "Casta diva" from Bellini's Norma — came off well.
Only a brief, fleeting strain at the beginning of "Largo al factotum," from Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia, marred baritone Neal Stratford Sharpe's confident portrayal of Giovanni Belletti, Jenny Lind's colleague. His attractive and dulcet sound was paired with a fine acting ability. His sea-sickness episode was most convincing.
It took the efforts of two people to bring the character of the famous midget, General Tom Thumb, to life on stage. Larsen had always conceived of this character being portrayed by a puppet. Student Ericka Grayson custom designed the puppet to fit the physical proportions of the mezzo-soprano Christina Friedmann, who was dressed in black and moved the puppet's arms and feet while she sang. With the little General in his bright blue suit attached to the black-clad singer, I was reminded of traditional Japanese Bunraku Puppet Theater. Friedmann brought out Tom's quick insight and sensitivity.
The multi-talented onstage octet of singers consisted of Cory Alexander, Conor Angell, Lindell O. Carter, Pittsboro native Sidney Glasgow Dixon, Hillsborough native Kate Farrar, Melissa Larkin, Whitney Myers, and Michael Laverne Thomas. Fast costume changes and quick set changes were constant. Act II opened with the octet forming a tableau vivant imitating Barnum's steam-driven music machine. Several members of the group showed a flair for comedy: there was "Josiphus Orange Blossom," a minstrel song, performed by Lindell Carter as Mr. Dodge, and Sidney Dixon, comically rigid, during "Charity's" appropriately hideous "singing" of Benedict and Taylor's prize-winning song, written especially for Lind. To quote Jenny Lind, "Words fail me. What your song means to me I could not possibly say."
Pit, stage, and runway were kept in careful co-ordination by conductor James Bumgardner, currently on the faculties of both Guilford College and Appalachian State University. Producer/Stage Director David Holley was kept busy at the back of the hall dealing with spotlights and projections, etc. The small orchestra and pit chorus played and sang with style and verve.