The Secret River: Opera Orlando Writes a Love Letter to Central Florida

When Calpurnia asks Mother Albirtha, the village sage in the Central Florida backwoods where The Secret River is set, how to once again find the bountiful river that magically re-energized her father’s fish market, Albirtha admits, “This is a sad thing to tell you. There is not any secret river.” This scene from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ posthumous children’s book bears the thickest strands of hopelessness in an otherwise uplifting parable about resoluteness, ingenuity, and selflessness when it’s hardest to be any of those things.

But Mark Campbell’s libretto for The Secret River Opera Orlando’s first commissioned opera, premiered the weekend of December 17, 2021 at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts — tones down that hard-hitting revelation in favor of Albirtha’s reassuring words that follow: “But never worry, the secret river is always with you.” Animated by a sprightly score by composer Stella Sung, the scene — and the opera — becomes less fraught by the realization that the secret river is just a metaphor.

Opera Orlando presents The Secret River--Photo by Bearded Lens

Opera Orlando presents The Secret River–Photo by Bearded Lens

Campbell collaborated remotely with Sung, who is based in Orlando, finally meeting her for a piano workshop last April. Three years in the making, the one-act chamber opera is the result of the creative team’s idea to adapt a Central Florida story, while foregrounding the Black community and appealing to all ages. Conducted by Everett McCorvey, most of the 11 ensemble musicians were assembled from the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, for which Sung was the first ever composer-in-residence.

Set in the round with design by Grant Preisser and direction by Dennis Whitehead Darling, the dreamy visual arrangement for the book’s magical-realism style consisted of multi-tiered planks of plaster arched like the pages of an open book, onto which projections were made, including supertitles. From the St. Johns River-inspired rural areas in Rawlings’ Depression-era story, to Calpurnia’s bedroom, to the rural marketplace, the projected backdrops by Tláloc López-Watermann added much variety.

Kyaunnee Richardson as Calpurnia captured the wide-eyed innocence of a young girl on the cusp of discovering that things are not always what they seem. She gamboled giddily up and down the stage, bringing Rawlings’ winsome Black heroine to life with her cherubic soprano range. Campbell’s libretto has Calpurnia interact with her parents more than in the book; soprano NaGuanda Nobles and baritone Geoffrey Peterson were very capable in their supporting roles. Their trio with Calpurnia, when they assure her of their support despite the hard times, was touching.

Opera Orlando presents The Secret River--Photo by Bearded Lens

Opera Orlando presents The Secret River–Photo by Bearded Lens

The most fully realized role, which adds a missing layer to the 1955 book, is that of Mother Albirtha: a mix between wise grandmother, forest hermit, and soul-searching pragmatist. The character, and mezzo-soprano Kimberly Milton’s performance, brought Rawlings’ narrative arc to a more emotionally satisfying level. Albirtha’s entrance is marked by a dark-hued undulating vocalise that brings soulfulness to Sung’s vocal palette, allowing Milton to plumb the depths of her register.

The stellar cast was completed by Emily Pulley as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Campbell’s libretto inserts the author into her own creation, and we see her jotting down ideas for her next story, one of which, sure enough, becomes The Secret River. Although Pulley displayed remarkable vocal agility — Sung gives the character a moving duet with Mother Albirtha — Campbell’s metafictional ploy is undeveloped, and the Rawlings character ends up feeling unessential.

Sung’s compact and breezy score is an almost faultless vehicle for the story, even if it tends to rely mostly on piano (Julie Tompkins), with strings and woodwinds as support. The chipper, triadic style she employs doesn’t shy away from a lyricism that reflects the book’s most spirited and frolicsome moments, sometimes engaging in tone painting and other unsubtle gestures, but without falling into camp. With glockenspiel, vibraphone, and other mallet instruments (Jeffrey Moore, principal), the percussion is employed adroitly; it colors the scene for children’s chorus, for instance, in which Calpurnia looks for Mother Albirtha.

Opera Orlando presents The Secret River--Photo by Bearded Lens

Opera Orlando presents The Secret River–Photo by Bearded Lens

That scene is another creative liberty the libretto takes, and a highlight of the opera, along with the later scene in which the children acknowledge Calpurnia’s determination that leads her to the river that pulls the village’s economy out from the doldrums, at least temporarily. And when she finds the river, the score becomes iridescent with a fluttery harp (Elizabeth LeBlanc), along with a Florida wildlife sampler via MicheLee Puppets: fish, gopher tortoises, an owl, and — most impressively — full-size puppet/costume hybrids for the bear, the panther, and the blue heron, all of whom Calpurnia feeds catfish to, only to contend with the fact that she won’t be thanked for it. She comes to learn that not everything is as rose-colored as the river, and — as Mother Albirtha makes plain to see — that the power to live with that lies in self-assurance and practicality.

With The Secret River, the six-year-old Opera Orlando has made a smart move by creating an original, locally-themed, socially conscious, and family-oriented short theater piece for the holiday season, instead of rehashing well-trodden Christmas fare. Though there were empty seats at the Saturday evening performance, the diversity in the audience was palpable, and there were a fair number of people much younger than the average operagoer age, including families with children. It was a strong representation of that gold-nugget crowd that Opera Orlando, and every performing arts organization, wants to connect with. They’re doing it right.


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