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The Prototype Festival’s Scarlet Ibis (and the day I almost ate glue)

imagesWhen I was a kid, my older brother tried to feed me a tube of airplane glue. I’m sure he thought it was for my own good. Perhaps the glue resembled toothpaste?

It made a great story over the years: Mom caught brother in the nick of time though with so much glue flying around that nearby furniture had to be re-varnished. Now, this micro-confession is a disclaimer for my hopeless capitulation, really from moment one, to The Scarlet Ibis.. This new opera with words by David Cote and music by Stefan Weisman created a quiet sensation at the Prototype Festival with its parable about an older vigorous brother and a younger sickly birth-defected one that embodies the fragility of society’s rare-bird artists who are easily bullied and extinguished by the abrasiveness of the larger world.

The older brother is constantly disappointed at not having a physical equal for his boyhood adventures in their rural North Carolina home, coercing the kid into pushing himself to walk (which was not expected) with a near-sadistic brand of tough love. Nicknamed Doodle because he previously crawled like a doodle bug, the sickly kid also has visionary, poetic qualities. But pushed beyond his physical limits, he dies.

Bolstered by some of the best lines from the James Hurst short story on which it’s based, the opera has a wonderfully clear narrative about the child’s attempted progression into the normality that he doesn’t really want, but that his older brother insists he must have. Along the way are any number of affecting musical set pieces, such as a church hymn that Doodle sings asking God to be healed (greeted with mocking tones by his brother). Then there’s his rhapsodic interaction with a tropical bird (a scarlet ibis) that seems to have been blown by a storm out of his natural habitat, seems pathetically exhausted and dies.

How to stage such a thing? Director Mallory Catlett and designer Joseph Silovsky devised a diorama across the rear horizon of the stage (at HERE arts center in downtown Manhattan) that almost subliminally provided atmosphere. Doodle himself, a creature almost as unimaginable as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s baby-born-old Benjamin Button, is portrayed by a puppet who is initially carted about in a wagon, later in a row boat, often on gurney-like tables that are rolled around the stage. The concept is so effective, for instance, that when the two are boating in a swamp and lower a water container to see what they can dredge up from below, you’re there with them in ways that a more comprehensively realistic set wouldn’t allow. The puppet itself had a vaguely questioning facial expression – but not so much to ruin the tabula rasa quality that accommodates the emotional life breathed into the object by a trio of puppet masters. Countertenor Eric S. Brenner, meanwhile, gave Doodle a voice.

The piece’s simplicity of means – and its impact – were not unlike those of Juan Darien, the semi-legendary 1988 studio-theater show that put director Julie Taymor and composer Elliott Goldenthal on the map. Similarly, The Scarlet Ibis score abounds in lyricism but can’t be said to have traditional tunes.

To say that the music is somewhat anonymous isn’t a criticism so much as a compliment to how selflessly it’s devoted to characterizing every scene. No Wagnerian artifice shoehorns (or elongates) the story into a larger symphonic scheme. With a sound envelop resembling Appalachian Spring in its original chamber-orchestra version, the music subtly creates an effective netherworld between major and minor when the family first attempts to explain this highly unusual second child to Brother. Rhythms are simple but give an appropriate emotional pulse of every scene.

When the score momentarily quotes the Falcon music of Die Frau ohne Schatten, one realizes how much The Scarlet Ibis runs counter to the usual steep peaks and valleys associated with traditional opera. More temperamentally akin to film scoring, the music achieves its own kind of foreground operatic status if only through its dramatic precision. Most distinctive is the way the score gives the characters the time to think onstage. In contrast to more traditional opera where an emotional explosion is followed by a quick exit, important events have contemplation time that makes music and story even more insinuating.

The Scarlet Ibis earns its pathos so honestly that, for the singers, this may have been a remarkably low-pressure gig. No need to cover the weak spots or “sell” the scene any any traditional sense. It was great to hear Abigail Fischer and Keith Phares (mother and father) singing in vocal comfort zones that explored the piece’s dramatic truths rather than showing off what they can do. The excellent Nicole Mitchell was the woman who recognizes the alternative power of a fellow outsider from the moment of his birth. The dominant role of Brother was a major assignment for the theatrically resourceful mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn who played the role’s bullying heedlessness with a fearless lack of charm. We’re supposed to know this character, not love it. And Chinn sang effortlessly.

The Scarlet Ibis had to have been developed (by HERE and Beth Morrison Projects, in association with American Opera Projects) with great care. So easily, one could look at the piece the way Brother looks at Doodle, claiming that it should be more normal, like what’s seen at the Met. Where’s the outsized heroism? Where’s Aida and Siegfried in all of this? Luckily The Scarlet Ibis had the courage to be itself.

My own identification with the piece diverge strongly from the actual plot. Though the quieter No. 2 child, I was never physically compromised, but didn’t speak well (which is its own kind of prison) in contrast to my more socially adept older brother. Yep, I was the odd one –  in small-town Illinois, checking out Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande from the public library and writing fiction about a final-stage alcoholic who loses his legs in an accident and sets up residence at the bottom of a McDonald’s garbage can.

Little did I know that my entire family would be wiped out by bad habits that had plagued the family tree for generations. And mine was hardly the only one. People began dropping left and right in the middle-class subdivision where I arose. The man who had the neighborhood’s best-kept lawn came home drunk one freezing night, slipped on the ice, passed out and froze to death a few steps from his front door.

When being typical is hopeless, you’re less inclined to follow in those kinds of footsteps. I thank my outsider status for the perspective to recognize and properly take preventative measures against such things in my own life. I take absolutely no pleasure in reporting this, but it is a fact.

Not all Doodles die young. Some grow into tough old birds. And art is the catalyst.


  1. David,

    Reviewing is not supposed to move, just inform and, if lucky, enlighten.
    But here you have managed a fine balancing act and done all three with this piece. All I ask is that you make posts such as this one more frequent. In these days of rampant idiocy and mediocre consumer info passing itself off as criticism, you are a rare exception. The Philadelphia Inquirer is luck to have you. From one former doodle to another, warm regards,


    • David P Stearns says

      Thanks as always! I think there are lots of us Doodles running around. Did I see on FB that you recently visited Cuba? The photos looked fabulous. I have to go there soon!

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