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Review: A ‘Stonewall’ Opera Reflects the Diversity of Queer History


Review: A ‘Stonewall’ Opera Reflects the Diversity of Queer History

But how to tell all of their stories within a single opera — one with a running time of less than 90 minutes? “Stonewall” tries, by giving the many principal singers brief arias that characterize them with pointedly telling details, but it ultimately doesn’t have the space to push any one role beyond mere archetype. And the baldfaced emotionality of Mr. Bell’s otherwise sophisticated score often abandons a human scale for something more like hagiography.

The opera opens with a spoken homophobic slur on the subway. (Riccardo Hernandez’s set consists of fluidly mobile walls covered in tin tile like a bar’s ceiling, decorated with thin strips of LED light that illuminate in different configurations for each scene.) The insult sparks a loud, dissonant chord that sets the opera in motion with a chugging, Sondheimian rhythm and restless momentum, vigorously conducted by Carolyn Kuan.

Maggie (Lisa Chavez), the butch lesbian, is on the receiving end of the slur; but she insults the man back and isn’t bothered, not with the evening she has planned: “Tonight downtown/I’m kissing a dozen girls,/And hope to take one home.” What follows is a long montage that recalls both the “Tonight” quintet from “West Side Story,” though a whole lot gayer, and the “I want” song trope of musical theater, with each major character briskly offering an introduction and aspiration.

Mr. Campbell’s plain-spoken and lucid libretto, smoothly conveyed through Leonard Foglia’s direction, touches not only on public harassment, but also blackmail, conversion therapy, discrimination and — admirably — the shady background of the Stonewall Inn, an unsanitary, Mafia-run bar that thrived on bribery.

Some singers appear too briefly. There’s barely any time, for example, to take in Brian James Myer’s buttery baritone voice beyond the passing scene of his character, a Dominican-American teacher named Carlos, getting fired from his Catholic school job for what the principal calls “your lifestyle.” Yet Mr. Bell’s music lingers a little too long on Renata (Jordan Weatherston Pitts), a drag queen whose introduction is underscored with exoticizing percussion that verges on problematic.

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