Exploring a Modern Tragedy with Opera

“Tipped over. Such a gentle word for what happened,” sings the mother character as she remembers the Twin Towers. Creating an opera about 9/11 may also sound like a strangely refined approach to depicting such a horrific event, but Calling: An Opera of Forgiveness makes for a thoughtful version of the familiar story. Here, silence and darkness convey the first plane’s crash. In the immediate aftermath, screams are mimed and the fears and concerns of New Yorkers are sung in a smooth baritone or a melodious soprano.

Based on the book, A Mother’s Essays From Ground Zero, by Wickham Boyle (directing and writing the libretto here), Calling follows one Lower Manhattan family on the day of the attacks and the month after. Things start out normally enough when the “Mother” (soprano Nicole Tori) drops her child off at school. The actors bustle through a morning commute nicely rendered by choreographer Edisa Weeks, singing of the “blue sky” as they move in front of a blue backdrop.

The early parts of the production do a good job of pitting these routine visuals against the ominous music composed by Douglas Geers and supplied by the onstage orchestra. The minor notes and pressing rhythm create an unsettling ambience. This builds until the volume of the instruments and pitch of the singers reach their climax and then stop for the critical moment.

Afterward, the orchestra sustains the same urgency and uneasiness by both playing classic instruments in unique ways and integrating electronic touches into the score. At one point, the cellist makes a rough, scraping sound by moving his bow across the high part of the neck, and throughout much of the show, the computer supplies a pervasive buzzing sound that’s downright eerie (and a bit reminiscent of the Clockwork Orange soundtrack).

Eventually, the mother decides to retrieve her daughter from school near the Towers before they fall. Tracing her path, Calling shows various angles of the event, from watching the burning building through an apartment window, to witnessing their collapse from the street, to reflecting and recovering at yoga class a month later. Throughout, Tori balances well between performing tough vocal passages and capturing genuine concern and confusion.

The lyrics range from insightful to verbose. Some of Boyle’s details are powerful in their simplicity, such as a parent making children turn away from the collapse or a worker staging fake rescues to cheer up frustrated Ground Zero search dogs. But other descriptions seem like they would be more at home on paper than on the stage. In scenes reflecting on the ash-covered streets, for instance, the actors stumble over some lines that aim for poetic effect, but end up sounding unnatural.

Still, the words and music frequently complement each other. In “The Clean Up,” the rescue effort looks and sounds like a funeral. A fireman (baritone James Rollins) sings the refrain “we work the pile,” in a rich, solemn tone, while the workers shuffle about with their heads down. It even seems like the singing trails off a bit on the last word, making it ambiguously linger between sounding like “pile” or “pyre.” But the most evocative moment comes at the end of the song: as it layers more instruments and vocal registers, listeners may feel trapped beneath the weight of the music.

While Boyle infuses the show with a few distinguishing details of her own experience, some of the elements in the show are a bit hackneyed. It would have been nice to see more unique specifics (such as the husband, played by Roland Burks, placing flowers throughout his devastated neighborhood) incorporated into the script, rather than some generalized experiences that anyone who watched news coverage remembers. However, Calling should be commended for its overall refreshing approach. It’s the type of tribute that should be seen and discussed.

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