In four stagings of two new works, Guerilla Opera delves deep beneath the sandwich

September 26, 2014 at 12:03 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Aliana de la Guardia in Guerilla Opera’s “Let’s Make a Sandwich.”

Sally Gasco and her mother exchange a smile as they lay pieces of rye bread on an oven sheet. The mother proceeds to toast the bread while Sally, standing next to her, mixes butter, milk, cheese, and tuna together in a boiler, which she then heats on the stove. When the mixture is ready, Sally spreads spoonfuls of the fish onto the toast, and the open-faced tuna rarebit is ready to serve. It’s a delicacy for sandwich lovers, for, as a narrator reminds those watching this display, there are sandwiches and then there are sandwiches.

The scene may seem an oddly undramatic event for an opera, let alone two. But that was the case at the Zack Box Theater Thursday night where Guerilla Opera presented a double bill of gripping and deftly realized micro-operas that were derived from a single source, an informational film from the 1950s entitled Let’s Make a Sandwich.

The film itself, shown in the lobby before the performances, is a relic from a time far removed from today’s cultural landscape. It teaches social lessons beyond simple sandwich making that now come across as mildly amusing. In the film’s orderly world, women play the role of good chefs and hosts, coming up with new twists on standard foods to serve the hungry boys. Yet the two operas, Curtis Hughes’ RareBit and Rudolf Rojahn’s Ouroboros, delve beneath the film’s shiny black and white veneer to tell dark and surreal stories.

Both composers have had other works premiered by Guerilla Opera. Hughes’ take on the 2008 vice presidential debate, Say It Ain’t So, Joe was heard in 2009. And Rojahn, who is the founder and co-artistic director of the organization, has had three previous operas performed by the company.

Hughes’ libretto for RareBit tells of an aged, dementia-inflicted Sally Gasco, who takes her decrepit tuna rarebit to an upscale eatery. She holds her sandwich up as a pinnacle of culinary achievement as she tries, without success, to sell her sandwich to the shop’s cashier and two gentlemen.

Rojahn’s story for Ouroboros situates Sally and her mother in an eternal Nietzschean loop. In their world, mother and daughter are stuck filming Let’s Make a Sandwich every day of their lives with no chance of breaking away from an evolutionary cycle. Put on earth to make sandwiches and little more, daughter will become mother, and mother will retire and eventually die.

Both librettos came to life through the slick, well-crafted music penned by each composer. Hughes’ score for RareBit features an eclectic wash of sounds, with low buzzing electronics mixing with angular riffs from winds, vibraphone, and drums, expertly played by musicians Amy Advocat (clarinets), Kent O’Doherty (saxophones), and Mike Williams (percussion).

Rojahn’s music for Ouroboros is full of surprises, richly lyrical one moment and a swirl of gnarly percussive grooves the next. Childlike rhymes sound with the ring of innocence through their tonal, hymn-like simplicity, while the pitch bends that follow are otherworldly. Throughout, each cozy, familiar sound is situated within an eerie frame.

An experiment in production, the operas of Let’s Make a Sandwich pit two independent stagings by Copeland Woodruff and Giselle Ty, an interesting and engaging decision as it provides the audience with the chance to compare the directors’ approaches to both works in a single sitting.

Woodruff’s productions, performed first Thursday evening, offered a straightforward interpretation of the stories. He conceived these short dramas as period pieces, with sets consisting of 1950s refrigerators, counter, and simple tables and chairs to capture the inside of the sandwich shop, for RareBit, and the film set for Ouroboros.

But there may be no more imaginative director in the Boston area than Giselle Ty. Her staging of Hughes’ and Rojahn’s works took on a more experimental and delightfully absurdist edge. In RareBit, Sally is auditioning for a performance role of her own, even handing out phony resumes to audience members in the process. The sandwich, in Ty’s imaging, stands as Sally’s stage presence and, graphically, a euphemism for her sexual organs. The sets were minimal yet effective, with white cardboard boxes suitably arranged into walls, whereupon texts about the interpretation of art were projected.

The set design for Ty’s Ouroboros involved a strange combination of balloons on strings and a circular sheet placed mid floor, symbolizing, no doubt, the story’s theme. Ty’s direction drew markedly visceral and more emotional performances from the cast than Woodruff’s did. The ending was especially poignant, even horrifying. There Sally, played by soprano Aliana de la Guardia, driven more by grief than selfish individualism as she resists, without success, her place in the evolutionary cycle, fell into heart-rending sobs after witnessing her mother’s death.

The acting and singing was strong all around. In RareBit, de la Guardia found a touching humor in the senile Sally Gasco. Her crystalline vocal tone matched the frenzied energy of Hughes’ music. As Sally in Ouroboros, she caught the bare innocence and tormented struggles of a daughter longing to break free from the role she was born to play.

Patrick Massey, as the Cashier and Well-Dressed Gentleman in RareBit, sang with a fresh, nimble tenor voice well suited to the intimate setting of the Zack Box Theater. The central scene in Rojahn’s piece called upon Massey, as the film’s Director, to deliver sorrowful lines, which the tenor sang splendidly, melding his voice with de la Guardia’s soprano for syrupy phrases.

Baritone Brian Church was aptly twitchy (Woodruff) and rambunctious (Ty) as the Casually Dressed Man in RareBit. His singing in both productions was appropriately dry and well suited to the vernacular lines of Hughes’s libretto. As the mother in Ouroboros, his singing took on a lyrical flow, and he effectively captured the mannerisms of a worried mother who is, until the very end, reluctant to accept her fate.

RareBit and Ouroboros will repeat 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Zack Box Theater.

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