SPORK: Toad Bites Back
Amadeus Wu/South Singapore Opera
Halie Spork was born in Lebanon in 1934 and taught music at the University until her retirement in 1999. Her music is eclectic to the extreme, with influences ranging from Vivaldi to Xenakis. Her skill as a composer enables her to make all of the styles used in this opera her own. In a way, the opera is probably like nothing else ever heard before. The various styles frequently change within the same musical phrase resulting in total disorientation for the listener.
The soloists and choir of the South Singapore Opera are a lively and highly effective group. When the Toad is biting they are required to jump on moving treadmills and sing. Soprano Arjico Wasserman and tenor Yakahoochie Portnoy have fine voices. It is a pity that they never get to use them until the final scene of the opera. Other singers repeat their words endlessly within a very restricted vocal range.
Spork has chosen as text an absurd story by the well known avant- garde American writer Simon Glassor. It ‘s a social commentary about a repressed individual who, subjected to many indignities, begins to fight back. His violent nature, however, leaves all characters dead by the final scene including the toad himself. A final duet is sung tacit.
Obviously this is not music for everyone. Spork cares not one whit if anyone ever hears it and has said so in many interviews. “This is what I wanted to write—so go …. yourself if you object.” Strangely enough, the composer has created a masterpiece that many believe to be the greatest opera ever written. So fertile is the composer’s imagination that when hearing echoes of Wagner you simultaneously hear patterns from Puccini, Verdi, and Glass. The effect while cacophonous and disorienting packs and emotional wallop akin to being attacked by a maniac weilding a sledgehammer.
The music is true ugliness of a dimension never before encountered, and all the more delicious for it. One of the most impressive scenes occurs in act two where the toad, while riding the treadmill, spots a gnat and attempts to take it “on the ride of its life”. This is done with music of immense power and depth. The character development and insight displayed in this scene represents just one section which will be savored by the intelligent listener. Other rich rewards occur in the opening scene where Count Lechford meets his beloved for the first time, and in the closing scene of this same act where the chorus chants some faux Mozart while the orchestra plays faux Ravel backwards. All music lovers are urged to invest in this hideous masterpiece. Full appreciation may take some time to set in, but those willing to play the opera repeatedly will either take their own lives, or have an experience unmatched in the history of music.
Hats off to conductor Amadeus Wu who is largely responsible for putting all of this together. His work is masterly, and reflects a personal absorption in what the composer is trying to accomplish. Wu is especially wonderful in the last half of the second act when the composer instructs that the conductor leave his post for exactly 24 minutes 12 seconds. He is to conduct, in absentia and out of vision of the orchestra. Wu is especially good at controlling things when he is not there. Perhaps he might consider this technique for future recordings.
The set is being offered at a reduced price of $109.95 for a limited period and includes a full libretto in 18 languages that occupies over 600 pages. This important set would be a bargain at ten times the price.