Guerilla Opera celebrates a pioneering Boston woman with site-specific premiere

June 5, 2022 at 10:14 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Aliana de la Guardia (here with saxophonist Philip Stäudlin) portrays Rose Standish Nichols in the world premiere of Beth Wiemann’s I Give You My Home, presented by Guerilla Opera at the Nichols House Museum. Photo: Timothy Gurczak.

That Boston has long been a challenging place for opera companies to thrive is no secret. So it’s heartening to see Guerrilla Opera, the region’s scrappy purveyor of experimental theater, continue to go from strength to strength as it enters its fifteenth season.

Of course, as the company’s repeatedly demonstrated, experimental need not mean off-putting or excessively esoteric. This weekend’s world premiere of Beth Wiemann’s I Give You My Home, at the Nichols House Museum in Beacon Hill, certainly wasn’t.

A forty-minute-long site-specific monodrama for voice and a small ensemble consisting of saxophone, percussion, and electronics, the piece is essentially an overview of the life of the home’s former owner, Rose Standish Nichols. Born in 1872, she was a garden and landscape architect, as well as an activist, figuring prominently in the Women’s Suffrage and Women’s Peace Movements of the early 20th century.

And, though the opera touches on the high points of Nichols’ biography (including her family’s connection to the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens), Wiemann, who also wrote the opera’s libretto, has managed to craft a story that, through its emphasis on a life lived with purpose and deliberation, adds up to—and maybe exceeds a bit—the sum of its parts.

Part of the reason for this owed to the intimate setting of the upstairs parlor and dining room of the Nichols House Museum. Decked out in Nichols’ original tapestries and artwork, the space offered an authenticity that was hard to beat. And, with soprano Aliana de la Guardia at the center of it all, the production also boasted a singer of strong dramatic presence embodying the opera’s leading role.

Indeed, it is striking what Wiemann’s managed to craft with just one singer and three accompanists. Her vocal writing fits de la Guardia’s instrument flawlessly: on Saturday afternoon, the singer moved easily between episodes of spoken recitation and singing (largely a mix of parlando-like enunciations and more flowing, sometimes quite angular, lyricism). Throughout, her diction and tone were precise, which lent the performance a certain intensity of character. Especially given the snug space, one felt this aspect keenly: there was nowhere for either the small audience of about fifteen or the quartet of musicians to hide.

Wiemann’s instrumental writing is likewise idiomatic, fluently shifting between leading and background roles. Most stirring, though, were the moments of searing fusion between de la Guardia and percussionist Mike Williams’ undulating vibraphone patterns and Philip Stäudlin’s acrobatic saxophone riffs: whether radiantly blended or icily dissonant, theirs was a tightly synced ensemble.

I Give You My Home’s electronic element, which largely consisted of prerecorded ambient sounds, was expertly handled by Jeffrey Means. Discreet and naturalistic over the first few of the opera’s six scenes, its employment however felt increasingly tacked on over the the score’s second half.

Regardless, the piece’s strengths won out. Caroline Seeley’s costumes—an ivory pantsuit for Rose, a period dress and shawl for the non-singing part of her mother (executed with eerie concentration by Alexa Cadete)—were effective. Cara Consilvio’s stage direction utilized the museum’s spaces well, though shifting the audience across the hall to the dining room for Scene Two was a touch disruptive. 

The remainder of the piece unfolded in the parlor. Given that mobility, one wouldn’t have minded a staging that encompassed more of the house, though some of its narrow passageways and staircases would have made that difficult.

Ultimately, though, it was Wiemann’s subtle underlining of the opera’s message of intentional persistence in the face of daunting obstacles that provided I Give You This House a certain timelessness. To be sure, the Women’s Suffrage Movement was a long fight and Nichols’ efforts pushing for peace failed. 

Yet she endured, and her home, which was opened to the public shortly after her death in 1960, aims to convey this perseverant attitude. Wiemann’s score and Guerrilla Opera’s production ably do justice to both the woman and her mission.

The production repeats 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. Sunday at the Nichols House Museum.

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