South Shore Opera brings stunning work about Paul Laurence Dunbar to Chicago

Classical Music Critic

It was the last Sunday in October that the South Shore Opera Company of Chicago mounted “The Poet,” a chamber opera which is an excerpt from a larger work: “Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadows: An Opera based on the Lives and Love of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore.” Steven M. Allen, the composer and librettist, was in attendance at the performance in the Paul Robeson Theater of the South Shore Cultural Center.

Allen’s opera is a gorgeous celebration of Dunbar, meticulously thought-out and rendered in a wide variety of musical styles attractively juxtaposed and weaved together. Dunbar’s life straddled the late Romantic and early Impressionistic periods of music, and Allen exploits this fact beautifully. The Prelude to “The Poet” is lush music worthy of Brahms, with a languid poetic essence. Leslie B. Dunner, the music director of the SSOCC and conductor of the night’s performance, gathered together a splendid chamber ensemble that rendered the music with élan. Dunner was a worthy interpreter of the music, offering beautiful sound from the pit (the 12 musicians were positioned in front of the highly raised stage in the Robeson Theater, surrounded by infrastructure allowing the singers to move around the instrumentalists). Dunner’s work was nuanced and exciting, detailed and vigorous. The chamber ensemble sounded glorious and supported the singers in every way.

Particularly ravishing is how Allen employs the harp in his score. Not only is it beautifully integrated into the ensemble writing (rather than featuring as an occasional flourish at the end of big expositions), but it plays a crucial role in the music of love and anguish alike. Harpist Tija Danilovics was marvelous.

Also noteworthy is Allen’s use of folk music idioms in some of the sections of the opera. The folk music that inspired him was that of black Americans, but he envelopes these melodies in a Copland-like Americana, thus situating his characters in their own community, but placing that community squarely as one important part of America.

Stage Director Amy Hutchison did a stupendous job in bringing this story to life. She and production designer Ted Nazarowski took a minimalist approach, and concentrated each scene in a small, defined space. This was realized beautifully, in one instance a simple room with a chair next to a table containing a tray with lemonade. For Alice’s room, there was a desk with her favorite flowers (violets) as well as slim volumes of poetry. This created the sense of an intimate peek into private lives.

Hutchison also employed two dancers to create a dual Paul and Alice, usually in the background. They represented the love and longing Paul and Alice felt, and complemented the music perfectly. It was a deft touch, with Destiny Casson and Otis Harris offering beautifully evocative dancing that was an enchanting visual depiction of what was in the hearts of the lovers.

Adrian Dunn starred as Dunbar and was at his best when conveying his disgust and disappointment at being admired only for his poetry written in black dialect. His first scene, with a group of young boys, had energy and freshness, the treble voices being youthful and innocent. Dunn was sometimes less than forceful, but he scrupulously maintained the dignity of his character.

Soprano Kimberly Jones was utterly charming as the woman Dunbar loved, Alice Ruth Moore. She sang with simplicity and offered a winning portrayal of a poet in love with another poet. The love from afar aspect of the opera was made palpable by Jones.

Mezzo-soprano Adrienne Price was convincing as Dunbar’s mother, a dominant person in the poet’s life and one determined to see him succeed. She blossomed in the second part of the opera, offering some joyful singing.

It was easy to like Cornelius Johnson’s performance. He communicates well and isn’t afraid to put himself deep into the character. His outing as Major James Pond, Dunbar’s agent, was excellent.

This production was a home run for the South Shore Opera Company of Chicago.