Hannah Lash’s Beowulf Premiered by Guerilla Opera

The idea and place called home, in all its comforts and dangers, is the theme skulking about in Hannah Lash’s recent operatic work Beowulf. Loosely adapted and clearly modernized from the Old English epic poem, Lash’s libretto and score are taut and lean. It is a domestic drama with tinges of Verdi without the histrionics, and Sondheim without the poppiness and tongue-in-cheek irony. Nearing its tenth anniversary as a leading force of contemporary chamber opera in the Boston area, Guerilla Opera premiered this work on May 20, 2016 under the stage direction of Andrew Eggert, a prolific dramaturg and rising star in the contemporary opera world. The veteran duo in the cast, Brian Church and Aliana de la Guardia, were joined by Brendan Buckley with a quartet of local musicians, Matt Williams (percussion), Philipp Staüdlin (saxophones), Amy Advocat (clarinets), and Lilit Hartunian (violin). On a spare stage of a single chair and hospital gurney, Guerilla Opera took us into a claustrophobic (partly because of the newly constructed plywood seats right on the stage) world where we hear the inner and external dialogues of complex human beings as they struggle to find peace in that place or idea called home.

As Beowulf brings us into the internal drama of a war-torn psyche suffering from PTSD, the audience isn’t belabored with exposition or none of the Hero’s Journey, Campbellite bullshit. We are thrown right into a palpable tension between the present and the past: “I am here, not there. That is over,” is sung nearly on loop in the opening scene as a mantra of comfort that Beowulf tries unwittingly to actualize. Yet, what proceeds in this opening scene, sung and acted so movingly by Brian Church, is a foreshadowing of the frustratingly grim futility of trying to heal a damaged mind of its delusions by actually being at home, a place in the present that is “not there, but here.”

Hannah Lash

Hannah Lash

This longing for home is further emphasized by the second scene where we see Beowulf’s mother, played with beautiful fragility and strength by Aliana de la Guardia. She longs for the mundane tasks of “closing the curtains” and “feeling the floor beneath her feet.” All of which can only happen in this place called “home.” As a way to externalize these internal struggles is the deliciously evil portrayal of the nurse by Brendan Buckley whom the mother believes is trying to poison her to death. This conflict is brought to a state of anxiousness as a yelling match between Beowulf and the nurse heightened with wailing woodwinds and thumping percussion. Church and Buckley go toe-to-toe in this highly stylized duet, which is more Javert/Valjean than Otello/Iago, yet, Lash’s terseness and stark melody keep it away from those passé histrionics of the past.  

In the aftermath of this tumultuous struggle comes a filial love duet sung with  tempered emotion by Church and de la Guardia with the recurring phrase “Good night my star, how bright you are.” Out of this comes a haunting motif that provides a rare moment in avant-garde chamber opera: a tune, maybe even an earworm. This leitmotif comes to symbolize the complexities of filial love and the ultimate desire for Beowulf and his mother to be home. And it is the “star” motif that ends the tragedy as if to signify to the audience a modernized Wagnerian “liebestod.”

The trio cast gave a brave and believable performance while the musicians meandered through the rhythmically vibrant arteries of sound with commanding facility. The austere staging and lighting (done impeccably by Daniel Chapman) with the subdued orchestration accompanying the melodically-driven music made this work a fabulous addition to the diverse Guerilla Opera canon. Through this creative adaptation of an ancient tale, Lash and the Guerilla Opera musicians clearly challenge any listener to lament or rejoice in the demise of opera. Contrarily, the immediacy of expression, modernity of language, and innovative staging make this a vibrant and thriving medium.