Five years ago, the San Diego Opera launched its Detour series of contemporary chamber and smaller choral works at the Balboa Theater, and the affordable events have attracted a new, appreciative and growing audience.
On Saturday, the company wrapped up its 2021-22 season with a series Detour featuring Beth Morrison Projects’ “Aging Magician,” which was delayed two years by the pandemic.
The polished and visually stunning production – featuring multi-talented co-creator Rinde Eckert, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and the Attacca Quartet – is San Diego Opera’s first collaboration with Beth Morrison Projects. BMP is the nation’s premier producer of contemporary and innovative operatic works featuring up-and-coming composers, librettists, directors, designers and performers. It’s an exciting new partnership, though many of Morrison’s productions — including “Aging Magician” — don’t quite fit what many San Diegan residents might consider operatic.
When it premiered on the West Coast on Friday, “Aging Magician” didn’t feel like an opera, despite its grand and imaginative story. It was more like a performance art piece with lyrics, song, chorus and music. The show‘s visual design by director Julian Crouch, costume designer Amy Rubin and video lighting designer Joshua Higgason was often breathtaking and magical, but its book and score – co-written by composer Paola Prestini, Eckert and Crouch – were random.
Certain sections of the spoken text – such as a series of telephone calls between the clock repairman and his sister – took the viewer out of the story, and the choral libretto, although printed in the program, would have been easier to read. follow with surtitles projected above. The scene. Prestini’s music is haunting, upbeat, eerie and joyous, and it’s been beautifully rendered by the affable and funny Eckert, the Attacca Quartet and the 29-member all-girl choir. But only certain sections of the story and music were extremely dramatic and powerful.
The 85-minute show is about an elderly clock repairman who announces he’s writing a book about an aging magician who hopes to pass on his secret book of scenic illusions to a young boy before he dies. But the night before his date with the boy, the magician suffers a heart attack and slips into a near-death state where he unknowingly revisits a 1920s childhood trip to Coney Island with his father. It’s clear that the Clockmaker and the Magician are the same person, but it was less clear how their physical and spiritual journeys intertwine and conclude.
The best feature of the show was its imaginative physical design. Chorus members used sheets of paper to create screens for the projected video, flapping seagulls, a life-size paper man, and shadow puppets. Eckert did sleight of hand, cycled around the stage and played several instruments, including a huge noise-making machine built from bicycles, rubber and metal tubing and other found items.
The finale was both visually and aurally stunning, which made up for some of the slower moments earlier in the show. I’m intrigued enough to hope that “Aging Magician” is the first of many BMP productions the San Diego Opera brings to town.