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Yes, these singers love a Cabaret! [photo (c.) Gary Payne]

That vernacular adage, “It’s not over ‘til the fat lady sings,” alludes to a common stereotype of opera singers. And the popular equation of an ample, bellowing Brünnhilde wearing a horned helmet has codified such an image. But music aficionados who have attended an Opera NEO Cabaret know just how wrong that cliché can be.

Saturday’s Opera NEO Cabaret performance at the Encinitas Library presented some 30 young, promising opera singers of every height and proportion nimbly turning out short scenes from grand opera to operetta to musical theater. And their smart musical versatility kicked that old stereotype off the stage right into the trash bin.

For example, a soprano confidently trilling through Handel’s copious fioritura in one scene or another singer spouting Mozart’s crisp German recitative will surely show up later in evening strutting the stage in a sextet of her sexy sisters snarling the “Cell Block Tango” from Kander and Ebb’s hit musical Chicago. Or a baritone who made a great Figaro in a scene from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville will turn up knocking out of the park a snarky duet from Spamalot.

No doubt to the disappointment of every singer, scene director, costumer and accompanist who contributed to the success of this Cabaret, I simply cannot describe and evaluate all 22 of Saturday’s presentations. The show’s laudable level of performance did not waver from start to finish; however, I can relate my reactions to some of the performances that stood out.

Opening with a charged presentation of Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret” may have been a tad obvious, but mezzo-sopranos Rachel Deatherage and Miriam Schildkret—sporting hot red sheaths—delivered those familiar lyrics with irresistible vocal panache and knowing inflection. In the quintet that ends the first scene of Die Zauberflöte, in which Tamino receives his magic flute, bass-baritone Langelihle Mngxati gave us a captivating, athletic Papageno, while the Three Ladies, soprano Chang Lui, and mezzos Sarah Wang and Rachael Deatherage, formed a brilliant, mesmerizing trio.

Offstage, the men of this season’s festival infused the stirring martial hymn “Su! Del Nilo al sacro lido” from the first act of Aïda with radiant power equal to the high onstage emotions from Emily Baker’s noble Aïda, Holly Dodson’s implacable Amneris, Jason Zacher’s imposing King of Egypt, and Paul Leland Hill’s grandly solemn Ramfis. I am waiting for a suitable bribe from Artistic Director Peter Kozma to prevent me from contacting the Italian consulate and informing them that his program has attributed Aïda to Jacques Offenbach.

Could soprano Christine Cummins’ gently floating phrases in her magical Sandman’s aria from Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel been more enchanting? Raul Valdez engaged in unabashed scene stealing with his swaggering Nemorino in “Lallarallara” from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, and the bright, heroic edge of his strong tenor matched perfectly Laura McCauley’s gleaming soprano as the fickle Adina.

The sheer athleticism of soprano Lauren Zinke’s “Dance 10, Look 3” from the musical A Chorus Line could not be denied, and mezzo Miriam Schildkret gave us a captivating, gutsy Old Lady in “I Am Easily Assimilated” from Leonard Bernstein’s evergreen Candide. And those six women who owned the stage in their take no prisoners “Cell Block Tango”: Rachel Detherage, Shafali Jalota, Amanda Austin, Danielle Bavli, Lauren Zinke, and Juliet Schlefer confidently executed Alyssa Weathersby’s aptly aggressive choreography and belted with delectable derision.

Two solo songs, neither from a stage work, also raised the level of the evening’s satiric edge. Soprano Amanda Austin brought her bravura technique to “The Girl in 14G,” a TED talk in song about an urban innocent living one floor below a forever-practicing opera diva and one floor above an equally active jazz siren. And soprano Juliet Schlefer deftly crooned “Bacon,” a smartly crafted musical warning about an addiction for which no 12-step adaptation has yet been promulgated. Mellifluous baritone Garrett Sanderson projected a vocally dashing Figaro in “Zitti, zitti, piano, piano” from Rossini’s The Barber of Saville, as well as joining Laura McCauley in a droll but vocally rich rendition of Spamalot‘s “The Song that Goes Like This.” Both opera and musical theater need to be able to make fun of their hallowed—or creaky—conventions, and this song always hits that nail right on the head.

Jason Zacher and Chang Lui gave a commanding account of “Per piacere alla signora” from Rossini’s Il turco in Italia, a duet replete with vocal pyrotechnics and gymnastic choreography—again cleverly designed by Alyssa Weathersby. Zacher may have literally swept Lui off her feet at the duet’s final cadence, but I think it safe to say that Opera NEO also swept its audience off its feet with an evening of such musical prowess and sophisticated amusement.

Opera NEO presented Cabaret at the Encinitas Library Concert Hall on July 26 & 27, 2019. The performance of July 27 was attended for this review. The Opera NEO Summer Opera Festival continues through August 11, 2019.

Ken Herman

Ken Herman

Ken Herman, a classically trained pianist and organist, has covered music for the San Diego Union, the Los Angeles Times' San Diego Edition, and for sandiego.com. He has won numerous awards, including first place for Live Performance and Opera Reviews in the 2017, the 2018, and the 2019 Excellence in Journalism Awards competition held by the San Diego Press Club. A Chicago native, he came to San Diego to pursue a graduate degree and stayed.Read more…

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