CAMBRIDGE — Boston Opera Collaborative’s fourth annual Opera Bites showcase heavily emphasized the “Boston” and “collaborative” in the company’s name. For the seven miniature operas in this year’s smorgasbord, the company commissioned a handful of local or locally connected composers, and pulled in an impressive team of singers, instrumentalists, and support. What’s more, all the operas except for one were world premieres. The cabaret-style showcase made for a charming, convivial atmosphere, and if one opera wasn’t to one’s tastes, the next was just a few minutes away.
The “opera bites” weren’t just musical. Light snacks and drinks were included in the price of a ticket, with concertgoers seated at small tables on the ground floor of a sold-out Edward M. Pickman Concert Hall at Longy School of Music encouraged to enjoy them during the operas. The small stage was transformed into various settings via projected backdrops on a wide screen, and an adept chamber ensemble conducted by Dan Ryan handled the scores. Most of the collaborative’s singers are early in their careers, and vibrant singing and dramatic know-how are obviously in no short supply, One can easily imagine bragging in a few years that we saw some of them way back when.
Tenor Wes Hunter and soprano Carley DeFranco built a tower of tension in composer Marti Epstein and librettist Claudia Barnett’s iridescent “Absent Grace,” while their spiky back-and-forth melted into uneasy intimacy. Soprano Celeste Godin’s diva housewife owned the stage in composer Tony Solitro and librettist Mark Harvey Levine’s “A Case of Anxiety,” vampy and on just the right side of campy. Stephanie Hollenberg, Mitch FitzDaniel, and Emily Harmon seemed to have the time of their lives stealing the show from each other in the hilarious “Misfortune,” in which Eva Conley Kendrick’s clean score snappily bolstered Mark Harvey Levine’s text.
The operas themselves were akin to Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates — you never knew what you were going to get. No official overarching theme was present, but women’s pain at the hands of cruel or clueless men figured in five out of the seven. The most uncomfortable of these was Scott Wheeler’s “Midsummer,” based on Don Nigro’s dark epilogue to Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The opera packed one of the night’s richest scores, including crunchy harmonies for four female fairies, but the glib treatment the staging and plot gave Puck’s sexually abusive behavior was exasperating.
Sexual trauma as character breaking-point also surfaced in composer Sam Wilson and librettist Lila Palmer’s “Sunshine Girl,” a tale in three tableaux of sisters torn apart by the different worlds they landed in after evacuation from wartime London. As elder sister Bess, Hollenberg’s voice giddily bloomed in the first tableau and hollowed out in the second. Alyssa Hensel deftly picked up the same character a decade hence.
Time will tell which of these operas are the most durable, but my money’s on “Misfortune,” “Absent Grace,” and the narrow front-runner if this was a competition: Jonathan Bailey Holland’s “The Battle of Bull Run Always Makes Me Cry,” based on the play by Carole Real. Flitting between a date with a handsome conversation-hog at stage left, and a post-mortem of the date with two friends desperate for excitement at stage right, Carina DiGianfilippo’s Donna was the evening’s most fleshed-out character, portrayed with care and nuance. The story, which felt too real to be just satirical, confronts a dating world where the bar for decency in a man is impossibly low. With a gentle plot twist in the final bars, DiGianfilippo’s winsome voice assumed soft but weighty resignation to countless one-sided conversations to come.
BOSTON OPERA COLLABORATIVE
At Edward M. Pickman Concert Hall, Longy School of Music, Friday nightZoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.