Nashville Opera Kicks off its 2022 Season with ‘Favorite Son’
At the Noah Liff Opera Center, each time one enters, who knows what the stage and atmosphere will be. For the recent production of Marcus Hummon’s “Favorite Son,” an old radio broadcast of a football game is piped into the theater as the audience of opera stalwarts find their seats. Billed as a folk opera, the hour-and-change run time hit many comfortingly familiar story beats with a bit of country flair, even as the Grammy-winning composer straddled genres and themes.
The story first opens at an Episcopal high school, where several Americana country tropes are introduced: senior football star Chris, his sweetheart Kate, football coach/parental proxy aptly named ‘Father Coach,’ and a brief series of events leading up to ‘the big game’ and celebrations thereafter. Right out of the gate, John Riesen’s (Chris) voice filled the theater with a welcoming richness in the lower register. It continued to bloom further throughout the story in more grand tenor-y moments, as in the anthemic chorus of the eponymous “Favorite Son” song. Darrell Scott (Father Coach) tackled many twisty melodic lines during several recitatives modeled after Anglican chant. Emma Grimsley as Kate complemented Chris’s presence with several tender duet sections throughout, but was sadly underutilized overall. The role’s small vocal range and rare solo moments despite being a ‘main’ character belied the true capabilities of Emma as a performer. This held true as well for Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva’s character (Chris’s doctor at an asylum during the second half); the role’s existence provides additional opportunity for Chris to announce his feelings and thought processes, but not much else.
Of particular enjoyment, especially during the first half, was the ensemble comprised of students from Belmont University’s musical theater department. Serving at times as the football team, bar patrons, and later asylum residents, their choreography incorporating step dancing and body percussion had great visual effect. Coupled with Hummon’s tongue-in-cheek rewrites of conventional hymns to be about defeating opponents on a football field or taking on the challenges of finding success in the wider world, the ensemble’s chances to shine early on kept the energy high and generated quite a few laughs in the opening few numbers.
After a 15-year jump in time, the plot settles down into a more somber tone as Chris returns to his hometown, feeling he has never really found a footing in the world after his peak success in high school. Without fully giving away any twists in the story, it comes to light that some events may not have occurred as remembered, or had been blocked from memory altogether, leading to dramatic realizations and confrontations at the climax of the
show. Where the first few scenes leaned heavily into country & folk elements with imagery of god-sports-glory and a slice of American pie, the latter half of the opera introduced more common musical theatre & opera tropes. Plot points with scenes in an asylum and a cemetery mirror those in The Rake’s Progress, Spring Awakening, or Sweeney Todd. Where it would have been interesting to see a fresh twist on those familiar beats, similar to the
spin on hymns, recitative, and chant that were presented earlier on, these moments in the show were presented ‘as is’ within the context of the plot, bringing nothing new to the concepts but still eliciting serviceable familiarity.
Kicking off the 2022 Nashville Opera season with a world premiere gives an adventurous flair to the programming, even as the smaller, more intimate scope of the personnel will be contrasted with heftier productions of Rigoletto and Das Rheingold later in the season. Having a small number of leads helped to keep the story concise and focused, further aided by straightforward storytelling during recitatives and plain, unabashedly catchy choruses. The pit orchestra of just five members balanced a meditative quality during lulls with more grooving textures when the moment called for it. Perhaps a bit more orchestration could have behooved the soundscapes, as some synth parts were a marked contrast to the organicism of the core piano-guitar-drums trio. To further the experience of the premiere for attendees, a QR code was offered in the lobby after curtain for patrons to stream the soundtrack again at their leisure – a thoughtful gesture for new music or old favorites alike. At evening’s end, the enjoyment of a live production, new music, a twist on a familiar story, and supporting Nashville arts culture certainly brought life and vitality to all who attended.