For many midsize companies, the economic challenges of presenting opera tend to ripple outward to affect just about everything, including repertoire. Most feel obligated to hew to the greatest hits and when they occasionally depart from these certified masterworks, do so with extreme caution.
But a healthy operatic ecosystem requires far more than that, so we can be grateful for Boston’s burgeoning opera underground, with small and resourceful companies staging works you simply won’t find anywhere else, from forgotten 17th-century Venetian operas to scores by young, emerging composers. Success in these productions is not guaranteed. You never know exactly what you’ll get. And that’s part of the fun of attending.
Playing out literally underground recently — in Boston Conservatory’s Zack Box Theatre — has been Adam Roberts’s new chamber opera, “Giver of Light,” presented by Guerilla Opera. Its plot is inspired by the suggestive legend of the relationship between the 13th-century poet Rumi and the mystic Shams of Tabriz, transposed here to what we are told is the contemporary American Midwest.
The Rumi-inspired character, John, has it all: the rewarding job, the comfortable home, the loving wife and family. But he also has an unnamed sadness, a yearning within him, whose dimensions become clear only when he meets the new bus driver in town, Darren. He falls under the sway of this modern-day mystic, with his stable domestic life unraveling quickly (and rather predictably) from there.
The libretto, also by Roberts, doesn’t quite steer clear of cliché and would be significantly stronger with a more streamlined and nuanced second act. But Roberts’s fractured, attractively kinetic score, for chamber ensemble and electronics, keeps the ear engaged throughout the 90-minute work, with some appealingly pointed vocal writing, and some vibrant lines for solo clarinet that call to mind a distant experimental cousin of Steve Reich’s “New York Counterpoint.” At other times, Roberts dramatizes the character’s inner life by creating more abstract electronically manipulated soundscapes (with support from electronics composer Anil Camci). The scene where John and Darren meditate, full of drones and overtones, artfully combines all of these elements and makes for the score’s most potent moment.
Thursday night’s performance was marred on occasion by balance issues, with the instruments at times overpowering the singers, but the ensemble cast made a strong showing nonetheless, with Jonas Budris as John, Brian Church as Darren, Aliana de la Guardia as John’s wife, Elena, and Jennifer Ashe as his son Brian. Julia Noulin-Mérat’s sets were simple yet effective, with one striking visual moment realized through panoramic black-light projections of Rumi’s own poetic texts. Andrew Eggert’s stage direction combined a theatrical naturalism with moments of stylized abstraction in a way that worked organically with the music.
Roberts, one imagines, may continue refining this promising new score, but meanwhile Guerilla Opera as a company (Rudolf Rojahn and Mike Williams, artistic directors) seemed to be exactly where it should be: bringing a freshly ambitious new chamber opera into the world with pluck and style.