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So many of my favorite themes all came crashing toward the audience in Michael Ching’s Slaying the Dragon on Saturday night at the Helen Corning Warden Theater. I love a good redemption story—probably as a result of my obsession with Parsifal—and the characters are all so wonderfully developed in Ellen Frankel’s sensitive and concise libretto. The plot is centered on the reformation of Jerry Krieg, the Grand Dragon of the state Ku Klux Klan. As diabetes weakens his body, his fellow Klansmen cast him aside. Rabbi Goodman and his wife Vera act as mediators, convincing Jerry to ask for forgiveness for his wrong-doings, while also trying to persuade the frightened townspeople to accept his apology, though they have been terrorized for years.
This stain in American history still strikes an emotional nerve. Although many of the battles of the civil rights movement were fought before I was born, the hate-speech in Jerry’s prank calls, and the visual of a triumphant, white-hooded chorus sends shivers through my body. These abhorrent depictions of intolerance are warranted; in fact they are dramatically necessary to give the audience a sense that the community’s forgiveness of Jerry is not only touching, but also unprecedentedly heroic.
The high tessitura role of Jerry was sung with a stentorian lyricism by tenor, Christopher Lorge. There was uniformity to much of his character’s music, but Lorge was able to bring nuance to it, weather he was spouting vitriolic venom, wallowing in self-pity, or begging for forgiveness.
The role of the Rabbi was performed tenderly by baritone, Jason Switzer. While much of the opera required him to remain even-tempered and almost infallibly forgiving, his sermon at the end of the evening was stirring, as he climbed into his upper register with lush tone and a big sound.
Teresa Eickel gave an incredibly rich performance in the role of Vera, the Rabbi’s wife. Through her voice and acting, she portrayed a strong woman of great character, displaying tenderness and compassion, but also a feisty and fiery charm. Her spunky one-liners garnered laughs from the audience, while her sympathetic scene with Jerry in Act II was truly inspirational.
In the smaller role of Esther, I was glad that Jody Kidwell had an opportunity to shine in her aria about the horrors of the Holocaust. With a fiercely resounding chest voice, and a glare like daggers, her impassioned and tortured performance was a highlight of the evening.
I find it to be one of the greatest successes of this work that even the small roles provided an opportunity for the talented young singers to impress. Sarah Beckham seemed to have a lot of fun while she riffed over the audience sing-a-long of “How Good It Is.” Paul Corujo sang so well that I was left wishing to hear more from his repulsive character. Roland Burks and David Koh each had several striking moments of powerful singing and acting throughout the evening.
The orchestra played superbly under the direction of Andrew Kurtz. The string quintet provided a full and lyrical sound, while the brass section made a particularly strong impression on me. I was quite glad to find that the orchestration never overpowered the singers in the small theater. I look forward to the continued creative development projects that will come from CCOT in the coming years.
Tony Solitro is a composer residing in Philadelphia, PA. He is the Crumb Music Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is a Ph.D. candidate and teaching fellow. For more about Tony, visit his website at www.tonysolitro.com.