Sin City Opera blends two works into one show—and it mostly works

Playing telephone: Marcie Ley, as Elle in The Human Voice.
Jacob Coakley

Four stars

The Telephone/The Human Voice May 9 & 10, 8 p.m., $15. Onyx Theatre, sincityopera.com.

The Telephone and The Human Voice are two fairly modern operas that place the telephone at their center. In The Telephone, it prevents Ben (played by Nathan Van Arsdale) from proposing to his amour, Lucy (the delightful Athena Mertes). In The Human Voice, it is Elle’s (Marcie Ley) last connection to her lover, who has broken off their affair. Both are one-act operas usually sung-through continuously, but in Skip Galla’s Sin City Opera production he has intercut the two, so we switch back and forth throughout the show.

It’s an ingenious idea, and it’s staged exceedingly well, but I fear it does a disservice to the emotionally heightened Voice. Cutting away from the action just as Ley develops a rapport with the audience and builds to a new emotional level forces her to start again in each new scene, robbing the opera of a tense emotional build. Ley has a strong soprano voice, well-suited to emotional extremes, and it seems ill-used to have it continually retreating from the core of the piece and having to rebuild.

The conceit of Telephone is also built on interruption, but its comedy can better handle the scene changes. Mertes’ work as Lucy is superb, a beautiful light voice paired with impressive comedic instincts. At one point her character laughs in a series of beautiful glissando trills, climbing higher and higher before collapsing into snorts of laughter—utterly charming. Arsdale’s rich bass-baritone and long limbs make her a perfect comedic foil for Mertes. Watching them discover new ways to struggle with the phone is sheer joy.

Technically, the production is top-notch. Live musical accompaniment from Dean Balan, Lindsay Johnson, Bryan Wente and John Arnold (with arrangements and direction from Jack Gaughan) give the vocalists a moody, full score to respond to. David Sankeur’s set cunningly solves the intercutting, and together with lighting designer Jake Copenhaver, makeup artist Marcela Rocha and costume designer Ginger Land-van Buuren they pull off one of the great theatrical reveals to begin a show in recent memory.

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