In a dizzy leap of virtuosic singing and theatrical performance, mezzo-soprano Liz Cass sings the heck out of “Lardo Weeping,” an inventive new opera theater work by composer Peter Stopschinski, currently in a run of staged workshop performances at the Ground Floor Theatre.
“There are no roles like this for women in opera,” said Cass after the first performance before an audience.
Commissioned by Austin’s indie opera organization LOLA (Local Opera Local Artists) — a first commission for the small, woman-run non-profit of which Cass is a co-founder — “Lardo Weeping” is based on a solo performance piece by Terry Galloway whose memoir, “Mean Little Deaf Queer,” was a finalist for the Lambda Award.
“Lardo Weeping” is a monologue delivered by the character Dinah LeFarge, a reclusive, complicated, wickedly humorous, irreverently intellectual and overweight woman who seldom ventures outside her apartment and only answers her door with a gun in hand.
During her years living in Austin in the 1980s and 1990s, Galloway was a founding member of the now-legendary sketch comedy troupe Esther’s Follies. So it’s not surprising that “Lardo Weeping” is shot through with no small amount surreal humor. (Galloway first staged “Lardo” in 1988 in Austin.)
Dinah welcomes her audience in, offers a tour of her messy apartment, shares her obsession with the (mostly fictional) tabloid tales found in the Weekly World News and expounds her admiration for the extinct dodo bird. Dinah believes herself to be an “endangered species” too, the last woman (seemingly) unafraid to live in her own skin. She’s excitable and outraged one moment, sad and anxious in the next.
The current 45-minute production is roughly the first half of what will be the finished piece, set to debut in 2020. Rebecca Herman’s artful direction and staging gives the three-woman chorus (Bethany Ammon, Lindsey Pino and Veronica Williams) light but meaningful theatrical duties as responders to Dinah’s rantings. And Dinah’s soulful homage to the dodo bird is expressively realized by dancer Alexa Capareda.
Galloway, who has been deaf since the age of nine, performed “Lardo Weeping” for years, and learned to read her audiences visually. Then, about five years ago, Galloway had cochlear implants inserted, giving her the ability to hear. In Austin for the first weekend of performances, at the post-show audience talkback, Galloway gushed about hearing for the first time her intensely personal monologue.
“I used think of performing ‘Lardo’ as my being alone with an audience. And now this is first time I’m hearing my language, my words. It’s my language, what I wrote, that’s being sung,” Galloway said.
Stopschinski’s score calls for a violin (Sonja Larson) and a cello (Nora Karakousoglou) in addition to his piano, which carries the bulk of the stylistically frenzied, highly theatrical music. To say “Lardo Weeping” is a challenge vocally, is gross understatement. And Cass amazes in what is essentially one long recitative.
Stopschinski quotes musically like mad. There’s a brief flash Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” and another of Puccini’s “La Bohème” — and also a moment of Twisted Sister’s rock anthem “We’re not going to take it.” Stopschinski said that he looked to legendary animated film composer Carl Stalling and the myriad “musical puns” Stalling used in his frenetic scores for “Looney Tunes” — bursts of recognizable music that cascade in quick succession.
“In a way, this is first piece that uses every kind of music I’ve ever played, written or worked on, all in one composition,” said Stopschinski, whose oeuvre is breathtakingly diverse even by the standards within the landscape of today’s adventurous cross-genre composers.
It’s a compositional, and aesthetic, strategy that works, encapsulating Dinah’s agitated state of being without every being too deliberately bizarre.
Stopschinski has said that he choose Galloway’s play because of its frenetic energy, its character’s rapid flashes between rationality and irrationality that together add up to portrait of a complicated life lived in a complicated world.
“The first time I saw Terry perform (‘Lardo Weeping’) the piece already felt operatic to me,” Stopschinski said. “I’m just adding another layer.”
“Lardo Weeping” continues through March 16 at Ground Floor Theatre. All shows are pay-what-you-wish with the March 13 show free.